By Kim Rahn
The number of foreign residents has steadily grown, reaching some 1.4 million and accounting for 3 percent of the country’s population as of the end of October, according to the Ministry of Justice Friday.
But the nation’s laws and public recognition on immigration have not been altered to accept foreigners as members of Korean society, experts say.
The ministry’s data was released ahead of the United Nations-designated International Migrants Day which falls on Sunday.
The number of foreign residents, which stood at about 570,000 a decade ago, surpassed the 1 million mark in 2007, 1.2 million in June last year, and 1.3 million last March.
As migrant workers took up the largest portion among them, the rate of the total foreign population has depended on the ups and downs in the economy, according to the Migrant and Diaspora Research Institute.
“The growth rate slowed in the second half of 2008 when the financial crisis struck the country, with the number of foreign residents rising by only about 10,000 between 2008 and 2009. But as the economy got better, the number is rising again,” said Kwak Jay-seok, a director of the institute.
Of the foreign residents, immigrant workers accounted for 604,000, or 43 percent of the total. The ministry estimates some 54,700 among them were staying here illegally.
More than half of the workers are Chinese, especially ethnic Korean-Chinese, followed by Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais and Uzbeks.
Immigrant spouses took up 10 percent of foreign residents. Here also, Chinese were the largest ethnic group, followed by Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipinos and Cambodians. Some 86 percent of them were women.
The third largest foreign resident group was students, with more than 90,900 studying here.
Lack of understanding on immigration
Despite the growing number of foreign residents, the nation is not properly dealing with them and lacks relevant laws to help them, Kwak said.
“Korea’s policy on foreigners is too much focused on ‘multicultural family’ and the term ‘multiculturalism’ is embellished. But on the other hand, nationalism, racism and xenophobia are still prevalent, especially against migrant workers, with people discriminating against them,” he said. “Korea with a rapidly aging society and the world’s lowest birthrate, needs immigrants for economic growth.”
After foreigners come, society should have a proper system so that they can stay stably and will not face discrimination, Kwak said.
“In the current visa system, for example, migrant workers have to leave the country after working for three years under the work permit system. Instead of forcing them to leave, the country should make use of experienced employees. The visa and work systems don’t meet market demand,” he said.
He also called for more integration programs, along with measures to prevent discrimination, human rights infringement, and employers’ theft of migrant workers’ salaries.