Why locals on this idyllic island are protesting

JEJU sits roughly 130km south of the Korean mainland.

With its year-round pleasant climate, the tiny island — roughly the same size as Sydney’s inner city — is a popular romantic holiday destination for South Korean locals and foreigners alike, with tourism making up a large chunk of its economy.

But the recent arrival of hundreds of Yemeni refugees has sparked outrage, both on the island and in the country’s capital, Seoul.

As far as South Koreans are concerned, refugees are not welcome.


Earlier this year, 550 Yemeni asylum seekers landed on Jeju, a resort island popular with honeymooners and other tourists.

Unlike the mainland, Jeju has offered visa-free arrival for many nationalities as a way to boost declining tourism numbers since 2002.

With its gorgeous landscape, Jeju has long been considered a popular tourist destination in South Korea.Source:Supplied

The island has been a popular tourist destination for over 15 years.Source:Getty Images

AirAsia began running direct cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Jeju last December.

For Yemeni asylum seekers, who had fled their war-torn country and were stationed in the South-East Asian country, it was an opportunity to gain entry into mainland South Korea.

Over the last five months, over 500 Yemenis have arrived in Jeju, up on just 51 across all of last year.

But the arrivals haven’t gone down well with Koreans. Outcries have broken out both on the island and in the country’s capital, Seoul, with the Yemeni arrival wave sparking what the New York Times described as South Korea’s “first organised anti-asylum movement”.
Locals have held demonstrations in recent months, brandishing signs that say “GET OUT” and “FAKE REFUGEES GO HOME RIGHT NOW” in English and Korean.

Jeju citizens have taken to the streets to protest the arrival of Yemeni refugees.Source:Getty Images

Meanwhile, an online petition calling for President Moon Jae-in to stop accepting asylum seeker requests has received over 700,000 signatures.
According to the Times, demonstrators questioned why South Korea should accept refugees when the United States was shutting its borders.

“From an early age, they learn to treat women like sex slaves and to beat them as they like,” said Yang Eun-ok, 70, a leader of the Jeju protest, according to the newspaper. “They can take many wives and produce many children. Now, there are 500 of them. In 10 and 20 years, how many of them will there be?”

Jeju is located just south of the South Korean mainland.Source:Supplied

But not all locals oppose the new arrivals. June polling data revealed that 39 per cent of South Koreans support accepting Yemeni refugees, while 49 per cent remain opposed.

Joi Nok, a 50-year-old cafe owner, told Al Jazeera that while she’s “scared” when she sees Yemeni men in big groups at night, she believes the government needs to do more to bridge the cultural gap.

“I’ve been on Jeju Island for about four months and have managed to make a Yemeni friend who visits my cafe daily,” she said. “He’s learning Korean and he practises it with me. And I’m learning about Yemeni culture.

“I think the government should educate these asylum seekers and tell them about Korean culture … But they should make a bigger effort to learn about our culture so we can live together.”


South Korea isn’t exactly known for its openness to outsiders.
Compared to other developed countries like Australia, the East Asian country accepts very few asylum seekers.

The country has accepted only 2.5 per cent of all asylum seekers it’s screened since 1994, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2013, the country was pressured by human rights groups into adopting a new law to protect refugees.

But since then, not much has changed.

According to UNHCR, 9894 asylum applications were received in South Korea last year, mostly from China, Kazakhstan and Egypt.

Of the processed applications, 98 per cent were rejected in the first instance. Only 102 applications — mostly from Myanmar — were accepted, while 5557 were rejected. (North Korea is exempt from this tally, as the South Korean government automatically accepts any defectors as its own citizens after they’ve been processed.)

South Korea boasts a homogenous culture and is not known for its ethnic diversity.Source:Supplied

The negative local response to refugees has sparked a backlash around the world.

S. Nathan Park, a Washington-based lawyer, described the protests as “xenophobic hysteria”, writing in Foreign Policy that “South Korea is going crazy over a handful of refugees”.

He noted that it was mostly women, young people and rich people who opposed the arrivals, and suggested Islamophobia played a large part in the discontent.

But other reports suggest it could be a cultural aversion to ethnic foreigners altogether.

In July, Se-Woong Koo, the publisher of an English-language magazine in Seoul, wrote an opinion piece for the Times decrying South Korea as “racist” and “intolerant of outsiders”.

This prejudice, she argues, is a product of Korea’s homogenous culture.

“None of this is surprising given South Korea’s education system. For decades, children, myself included, were taught to believe that this is a single-blooded nation — dubbed danil minjok in Korean. This myth of racial purity was promoted to foster national unity.”

She also evoked the country’s own tragic history with war, and a more recent history of alarming tensions with its northern counterpart: “Perhaps a better question to ask those South Koreans who seem to be devoid of compassion would be this: How would they expect other countries to treat South Korean refugees in the event of a war with North Korea?”

The Yemenis, meanwhile, now live in limbo.

The government has banned those still remaining on the island from leaving until their applications are fully reviewed.

This means that — for the unforeseeable future — they have nowhere else to go.

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