By Yun Suh-young
The government began efforts to enhance the human rights of foreign residents in Korea four years ago, but apparently without much success.
In 2008, the United Nations recommended the country take active measures to improve 33 criteria in which human rights were abused. But the measures to protect the rights of foreign workers and married migrants are still insufficient.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council Wednesday on how the country has implemented the U.N. recommendation.
“Over the past four years, the government has tried to improve the human rights of the disabled, children, or overseas Koreans but still lacks measures to protect the rights of foreign residents,” the commission wrote in the report.
“In the future, the government needs to strengthen the relief and protection system of foreign workers and actively reflect the guidelines for human rights of immigrants in its policy-making.”
The guidelines were established in February by the NHRC to boost the perception of migrants and promote their rights. The NHRC called for the need of a new human rights policy in order to help Korea become a multicultural society.
The number of foreign residents in Korea has exceeded 1.4 million and they are from over 180 countries. But the nation lacks in tolerance toward diversity and needs improvement in its perception of foreigners as well as awareness about the matter of racial discrimination, according to the report.
Recently, Jasmine Lee, a naturalized Korean citizen originally from the Philippines, faced a racial backlash from a few Koreans who opposed her becoming a lawmaker for the ruling Saenuri Party under the proportional representation system.
Bloggers and tweeters attacked lawmaker-elect Lee online by posting racially abusive comments. They said that foreigners threatened their livelihoods and that they couldn’t understand why they had to pay taxes for foreigners who took away their benefits.
The news of the attacks on Lee quickly spread through the media and many expressed worries that Korean society still shows signs of xenophobia.
The NHRC immediately released a statement regarding the issue saying that society needs to “respect diversity and rid itself of prejudice about foreigners.”
According to the NHRC, there are not that many complaints filed by foreigners regarding their violation of rights because not many know that they are eligible to do so. However, whenever they file a complaint, it becomes a hot social issue.
“Last year, when a naturalized Uzbekistan woman filed a complaint to our agency, it became a hot issue. There are not many cases like these reported to us, but whenever they are, they create ripples throughout society because they’re sensitive issues,” said an NHRC official.
The Uzbekistan woman filed a petition with the rights agency last October after she was denied entry to a sauna for having a different skin color. A sauna employee had apparently refused to admit the woman because she could “make water in the bathtub dirty” and “pass on AIDS.”
There were other similar incidents in which foreigners were discriminated for being of different race. A black person had been denied entry to a pub and an English instructor from the Philippines was rejected by a language academy for having different skin color.
“Many human rights violations occur during police interaction with illegal immigrants when sending them to detention centers. These are categorized as rights violations by the government. Discrimination also occurs between individuals, mainly through racially-oriented comments or actions. The government is trying to improve the situation, but it still has not done enough,” the NHRC official said.