An asylum seeker in limbo
By Park Si-soo
Mohajan Kanchan, 39, an asylum seeker from Bangladesh, lives in a modest flat in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, with his wife in the fifth month of a pregnancy and two children aged two and three.
When he opened the refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen to serve a cup of juice to this reporter, it was almost empty. The clothes of the inquisitive and mischievous kids were stained with dirt as if they had not been washed for days.
Kanchan is healthy enough to work. But under the South Korean law, he is prohibited from doing so. Permission to work is given to legally acknowledged refugees and asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of scrutiny by the Ministry of Justice for more than one year after they apply for refugee status.
Those who are denied the status by the ministry and take the case to court to overturn the decision are banned from engaging in any economic activity.
“These days we have a meal just once a day as we do not have enough money to buy food,” Kanchan said. His refugee application, filed for alleged political and religious persecution against him in Bangladesh, was denied in 2006 by the ministry.
His case was also rejected by a district court and an appellate court for a lack of evidence regarding the persecution he might face if he were sent back to his mother country. He’s now awaiting a final decision from the Supreme Court.
His pregnant wife — another asylum seeker from Pakistan whose case is being reviewed by the ministry — recently earned a work permit from the ministry but doesn’t take advantage of this due to health concerns.
No signs of improvement
To make money to feed his family, he worked illegally at a factory in October last year. He was soon caught in an Immigration Office crackdown on unauthorized migrant workers and fined 500,000 won, making the situation even worse.
The four-member family now lives on 600,000 won ($530) a month — financial aid given by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a Christian NGO, the Refuge P Nan. The family is also aided by the Korean Red Cross, which irregularly offers rice and some side dishes.
Kanchan said his family spends nearly 500,000 won covering the monthly house rental fee and other basic bills, including electricity, water, phone services and an Internet connection.
“We can buy nothing with the money left,” he said. When this reporter visited his home located just across the street from a bustling market place, Kanchan and his weary-looking wife were looking after their two kids in a nearly empty living room. The kids, however, were not shy in having a stranger in their home.
Like other kids at their age, they enthusiastically toddled, hugged their parents and acted cute around them. Shortly after, the children became exhausted and fell asleep.
“They drank a cup of milk at around 10:30 a.m. That’s all...,” Kanchan said. “We have no money to buy what my children want to eat. Can you imagine how heart-wrenching it is?”
He said his first child frequently had nosebleeds without any clear reason. But he has yet to get a medical checkup. “We are very worried about his health. But there is no hospital around here that offers free medical services to asylum seekers,” he said.
Despite two consecutive defeats in the trial over his refugee status, he remained undaunted, expressing strong confidence that the Supreme Court’s decision will be different.
“I’m confident that the Supreme Court cannot reject my case,” said Kanchan who converted to Christianity from Islam. He said the court would acknowledge that he might face persecution when he returns to Muslim-dominant Bangladesh due to his conversion.
Nearly 280 asylum seekers in South Korea face similar hardship as Kanchan. They are awaiting a court decision over their refugee status after the immigration authorities denied their refugee claims. It usually takes a couple of years for each case to get a ruling. During the period, many of them fall into extreme poverty and malnutrition, and experience health problems.
The government is aware that the law is a bit inhumane. But it’s reluctant to amend it for fear that the change could bring unwelcome side effects.
The UNHCR recently launched a campaign calling for an amendment to the law banning the employment of asylum seekers, who are engaged in a legal battle with the government to win refugee status.
It demanded the South Korean government “ensure asylum seekers the right of access to health facilities; to minimum essential food which is nutritionally adequate and safe; and to ensure freedom from hunger for everyone.”
It added that access to food for asylum seekers is guaranteed through the right to work in Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and all other European states.
“In South Korea, refugee applicants have neither the right to work nor are they provided with any other significant support to cover the basic necessities of life,” it said. “The often citied exception to this is the right to ask for permission to work one year after application in case the first level decision (by the justice ministry) has not been taken by then. However, even in these cases, the additional requirements are so restrictive in nature so that only a very small number is actually benefiting from this provision.”
An immigration officer dealing with refugee affairs admitted the restriction is problematic.
“We are aware that current system needs to be changed,” the office said on the condition of anonymity. “But if the ban is repealed and all asylum seekers are given a work permit, we believe many migrants who overstay their visas will abuse it to extend their residence here while making money.”
In May last year, 24 lawmakers, including Rep. Hwang Woo-yea of the ruling Grand National Party, submitted a bill to give the justice ministry mandate to aid asylum seekers and give them a work permit when the ministry’s screening remains unconcluded for more than six months after their refugee application. The bill is pending at the National Assembly.