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(Yonhap Interview) Korea can do more to help refugees: U.N. official

All News 17:18 June 02, 2016

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, June 2 (Yonhap) -- As a former student of development economics, Naveed Hussain had read about the remarkable economic success South Korea achieved in the decades following the 1950-53 Korean War. When he arrived in the country two weeks ago to take up his new post as head of the U.N. refugee agency in Seoul, he was truly impressed.

"Koreans should be very proud of what they have achieved," Hussain said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency Thursday, noting that the country went from being an aid recipient to a donor nation.

"I come to a country which already has a very strong foundation, which I would call friendly foundation, and friendly attitude toward refugees," he said.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees began full-fledged operations in Korea in 2006. With more than 20 years of experience working for the UNHCR in various conflict-ridden parts of the world, including Yemen, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sudan, the soft-spoken Pakistani-Briton said he applied for the position in Seoul because he had not been east of Thailand.

In his new role, the U.N. official was careful to acknowledge the support the South Korean government and people have sent to the agency and to refugees as a whole, but also to appeal for more help.

"I would like to encourage the Korean government to take a larger responsibility, larger part of burden sharing because the world is going through a huge humanitarian crisis," Hussain said, speaking of the growing and evolving refugee crisis in Europe.

"Korea went through a big war and had large scale displacement. Korea was also helped. Korea did receive international aid. Now it's Korea's turn to help the others."

According to Seoul's foreign ministry, South Korea has increased its aid for refugees ten-fold since 2011. That year, the country's financial assistance reached US$3.2 million. Last year, the sum was $30.6 million.

While there has been an increase in humanitarian assistance, even South Korean foreign ministry officials recognize that the overall amount is small compared to that of similar-sized economies such as Australia.

Financial aid is not everything, though, according to Hussain.

"I expect governments to prevent conflicts," he said. "I do believe that there is no conflict which could not have been avoided."

He also lamented the "big gap" between the magnitude of the refugee crisis and the global response to it

"On the one hand, governments are unable to prevent conflict. On the other hand, when conflicts happen and there's a humanitarian fallout, they're unable to provide sufficient resources to respond," he said. "And then we want a world which is peaceful, friendly and harmonious. How would that happen?"

In the two decades since joining UNHCR, Hussain said he has seen an increase in conflicts, which has in turn expanded the scale and changed the nature of the agency's operations. UNHCR workers are increasingly required to enter conflict zones where even the country concerned won't send its own troops. Adding up the number of refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless people, the agency now deals with the plight of nearly 60 million people around the world.

According to South Korean government data, the country has granted refugee status to 592 people since 1994. It has also allowed in 935 people for "humanitarian stay," which prevents them from being forcibly deported but grants them few other privileges.

Hussain noted the case of 28 Syrian men, who are among dozens of asylum seekers currently living at Incheon International Airport, South Korea's main gateway.

"We would like to see the government allowing them to go through the asylum system process which is currently not the case," he said. "Our attitude towards the government is not to tell them what to do. We want to work with the government to resolve these issues."

The Syrians are currently awaiting a court decision on whether they can apply for asylum status after the government denied them access to the system.

"It is time that since Korea has become a donor country from an aid receiving country that we would like to see that translated into larger generosity," Hussain said.


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