Foreigners, overseas Koreans seek to wield greater influence
A group of migrants and YMCA officials engage in their second round of working-level talks on Tuesday ahead of the launch of the Migrant Voters Alliance, slated for today. / Courtesy of Seoul YMCA
By Lee Tae-hoon
A group of representatives from civic organizations gathered at Seoul YMCA, Tuesday, for another round of working-level talks to fine tune the details of an ambitious plan, the launch of a political network for migrants slated for today.
"We have seen a host of bills and promises allegedly aimed at improving the lives of people with multicultural backgrounds. But almost all of them have been disappointing," a participant of the meeting said, asking not to be named.
"Policy makers here do not pay enough attention to what difficulties we have to go through. Now is the time for us to be trailblazers and raise a collective voice for the voiceless."
Another participant agreed with her, saying forming an alliance will help their voices be heard.
"When I went to a dentist, I was charged 800,000 won ($700) for a few cavities," she said. "Only when I went to the clinic with my husband, to complain about being overcharged, did the dentist reluctantly admit that he miscalculated it."
She said migrants, including naturalized citizens, face such unfair treatment, which is often deep rooted in Korean society, but anyone hardly has paid attention to it.
In the previous meeting, representatives for migrant families from the Philippines, Pakistan, Mongolia, Thailand and Japan gathered and pledged to launch a campaign to increase the turnout of migrant voters.
Thus far, nine civic and humanitarian groups have joined hands in the establishment of the new political movement ― including Seoul YMCA, YWCA, World Neighbors and Global Village ― and they all agree that the time is ripe for migrants to take political action.
"The Migrant Voters Alliance will place its top priority in raising awareness among migrants that they may also have the right to vote," David Joo, a representative from Seoul YMCA told The Korea Times. "It will be a great chance for them not only to make their voices heard, but also to represent some 1.2 million foreigners living in Korea."
In the June 2 elections, some 80,000 naturalized Koreans, 12,800 foreigners who have maintained permanent resident status for more than three years, and 58,000 overseas Koreans will be entitled to exercise their right to vote.
"The biggest problem is that many of the new voters are unaware that they are actually eligible to vote in the elections," Joo said.
The majority of them will be first time voters, considering that the total number of non-Koreans eligible to cast ballots has nearly doubled from 6,726 in 2006, while that of naturalized citizens saw an increase of 52,575 between 2006 and 2009.
The forthcoming elections will also mark the first time that Korean citizens living abroad can participate in local elections during their temporary stay here, thanks to a 2007 ruling by the Constitutional Court that banning the suffrage of overseas citizens was against the Constitution.
Kim Hae-sung, president of the Global Village, pointed out that migrants' participation in domestic politics had been rather symbolic and almost non-existent until now despite Korea becoming an increasingly multicultural society.
Kim, often referred to as the godfather to migrant workers, recommended a Philippine-born migrant housewife to the minor opposition Renewal of Korea Party as its proportional representation candidate in the 2008 National Assembly elections.
"As no one knows the problem better than the people who are experiencing it, I felt the representation of migrants in Korean politics was a must," he said.
She became the first naturalized foreigner to bid to enter politics, but to no avail as the minor party failed to secure enough votes to send her to the legislature.
Under the proportional representation system, parties make a list of candidates and seats are allotted to each party based on the number of votes it wins in the election.
First migrant councilor
Optimism is high that naturalized foreigners will be able to secure their first local council seat in the local elections and this will help them fully flex their political muscles.
It is attributed to the fact that of the six naturalized Koreans nominated by the ruling and opposition parties, Lee Ra, a 33-year-old woman from Mongolia, is certain to become the first foreign-born councilor in Korean politics.
The governing Grand National Party (GNP) nominated her as first in the list of its proportional council candidates in Gyeonggi Province.
"Not only have the numbers of naturalized foreigners and migrants soared, but they have increasingly begun to raise their voices and address difficulties they have encountered here," Lee said.
She is a vice president of a foreign spouses' network (http://cafe.daum.net/immigration), whose online membership has surpassed 10,900 and works as a volunteer at the Multicultural Family Support Center in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.
Lee said she envisions providing alternative education programs for foreign spouses and children having cultural and linguistic difficulties.
"I have seen many foreign mothers eager to provide better education to their children and willing to sacrifice everything for it," Lee said. "However, most of them fail to do so because they have little understanding and knowledge of the studies and curricula their children have to take."
She hoped that the new Migrant Voters Alliance will help migrants to join mainstream Korean society and guide the under-represented population of foreigners here.
Some political watchers forecast an emergence of another migrant councilor from the minor opposition Liberal Forward Party as it placed three naturalized ethnic Koreans born and raised in China on the top of the list for proportional representation seats in three counties of Seoul.
"This year will mark the first time naturalized foreigners and foreigners with permanent resident status will be able to enter the political arena and play a significant role in it," Joo said.
"The launch of the Migrant Voters Alliance will help policy makers and ordinary people pay more attention to the needs of migrant families here and allow them to raise a collective voice," he said.
Kim Jung-gon, a senior official of the National Election Commission, is also a strong supporter of a migrants' political group.
"Every foreigner residing here is a diplomat representing their motherland," he said. "If Korea respects their rights and treats them without discrimination, its brand value will improve all around the world, helping to boost local tourism, create more jobs and promote trade."
Kim said Koreans can demand the fair treatment of 7 million ethnic Koreans around the world, only when they offer generosity and kindness first to the 1.2 million foreigners it hosts here.