South Korea designates arriving Afghans as ‘persons of special merit’

South Korea has welcomed the arrival of Afghans who supported its operations prior to the Taliban control of Afghanistan, designating them as “persons of special merit” instead of refugees in an apparent effort to defuse anti-migrant sentiment.

A military aircraft landed at Incheon airport, west of Seoul, in the afternoon, transporting 378 Afghans who worked for South Korea’s embassy and other facilities in Afghanistan, as well as their family members. A further 13 will be arriving on a separate flight.

The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, said it was “only natural for us to fulfil our moral responsibility by helping the Afghans who helped our operations”.

The government made clear they were “entering the country as persons of special merit, not as refugees” and were given short-term visas. Should they wish to stay, they will then be given the option to switch to long-term F2 residence visas which allow employment, through an immediate legal revision to grant F2 visas to persons of special merit.

Analysts said the designation was roughly equivalent to being recognised as refugees, just not in name.

South Korea has a lukewarm attitude towards refugees. Despite being the first Asian nation to legislate a refugee act, it has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates among developed countries. From 1994 to 2020, it granted refugee status to around 1.5% of all applicants, according to the justice ministry.

The arrival of about 550 Yemeni asylum seekers in 2018 sparked a nationwide backlash, and in 2020 an investigation found the government had for years rigged thousands of asylum interviews of applicants from mainly Arab countries, lowering their chances of getting accepted.

Yoon In-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University, said South Korea’s reluctance to accept “refugees” stemmed from economic fears, but also fear of people from different backgrounds.

“South Korea is very homogenous. Slow economic development, a population that’s ageing and shrinking, and today’s Covid-19 crisis … People feel they don’t have sufficient room to care for non-Koreans at this time.”

Another reason was Islamophobia. “South Koreans tend to equate Muslims as potential terrorists,” Yoon said, a fear he said was fuelled by the politically powerful conservative Christian lobby group.

Over the past week, the government has displayed a cautious stance on the refugee issue. President Moon’s top security adviser, Suh Hoon, noted that bringing in Afghans other than those who helped South Korea was a “very complicated and difficult issue that requires to consider diverse aspects, including our people’s acceptance”.

Some refugee advocates believe the government circumventing the refugee issue in this way may cause misunderstandings about refugees in South Korean society. “It’s highly inappropriate,” said Lee Il, a lawyer at Advocates for Public Interest Law and member of the Korea Refugee Rights Network civil group.

“It reduces refugee status, which should be granted according to South Korea’s obligations under international human rights law, to a medal awarded to those who have done well for the government rather than being granted to those who are clearly at risk of persecution,” Lee said.

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