By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, June 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha served as a senior U.N. official handling humanitarian affairs and emergency relief before taking office last year. At that time, she stressed that every refugee crisis is a global problem.
In recent months, in fact, South Korea has experienced an influx of Yemeni refugees, which has sparked controversy over whether the country is prepared to play a "responsible" role in response.
A total of 561 Yemeni people have arrived on the southern tourist island of Jeju this year alone, mostly via Southeast Asian nations. Jeju has offered a visa-free program to allow foreign visitors to stay there for up to 90 days without restrictions. As of June 1, the Ministry of Justice excluded Yemen from the list of beneficiaries in a measure to curb sudden hikes in the number of refugees on the island.
The fate of the existing Yemenis seeking formal refugee status is a hot topic.
A total of 549 people submitted applications and 486 of them are staying on the island, waiting for the government's decision expected to take at least several months.
Kang's ministry hopes that South Korea will embrace as many Yemeni refugees as possible at an early date.
"Our basic stance is that South Korea, as a responsible middle power in the international community, needs to play a responsible role in response to such humanitarian crises as the Yemen case," a ministry official said Friday, requesting anonymity.
He pointed out Seoul has increased its annual financial support for Yemeni people to US$4 million since 2017, with around 22 million people, two third of its population, believed to be in need of humanitarian aid amid years of a civil war.
Another official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Kang is keenly interested in the issue. She used to deal with the Yemeni issue in person at the United Nations.
"We requested related authorities to speed up the process of screening the refugee status applications, as the world is paying attention to how South Korea handles the matter," he said. "It can also be a good opportunity to change public perception on the refugee issue."
South Korea began accepting applications in 1994. Among a total of 32,733 applicants, only 792, or 2.4 percent, have been granted asylum.
As to the Yemenis, the Ministry of Justice, which is in charge of legal affairs, favors a "principled" approach based on rules applied to refugees from other nations under South Korea's refugee act, introduced in 2013, and the U.N. Refugee Convention. The ministry also suffers a shortage of manpower at the immigration office.
Public opinion is not favorable to the Yemenis. Half of South Koreans are opposed to granting asylum status to them, according to a poll.
The Realmeter survey of 500 adults nationwide, conducted on Wednesday, showed that 49.1 percent were against it, while 39 percent expressed support. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
More than 330,000 people have already signed an online petition to the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae demanding the government deny visas for the Yemenis.
They say it's premature for South Korea to accept such a large number of refugees at once in light of possible impacts on the local economy and concerns about crime.
A government official said the Yemen refugee issue requires inter-agency consultations led by Cheong Wa Dae or the Office of Government Policy Coordination under the prime minister.
"There will likely be a decision after President Moon Jae-in returns from a Russia visit this weekend," the official said.
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