JEJU: A few hundred asylum seekers from Yemen have sparked an unprecedented wave of xenophobia in ethnically homogenous South Korea, echoing the anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept Europe and helped propel Donald Trump to the White House.
Over a million migrants arrived in Germany after its borders were opened in 2015 to asylum seekers – many fleeing war – deeply dividing the country and its neighbours.
And the United States detains thousands of illegal arrivals at its border with Mexico every month.
But when just 550 or so people from war-ravaged Yemen arrived over several months in South Korea, the reaction was uncompromising.
“Is the government crazy? These are Muslims who will rape our daughters!” was one of the top comments, liked by thousands, on Naver, the country’s top Internet portal.
Hundreds protested in Seoul last month, urging authorities to “kick out fake refugees” while nearly 700,000 signed a petition on the presidential website calling for tightening what are already some of the world’s toughest refugee laws.
Refugees are largely an alien concept there, with only around 4% of the population being foreigners.
Discrimination against them is widespread, with many openly mocked on public transport for being “dirty” or “smelly”, and refused entry to fancy restaurants or public baths.
A government survey in 2015 showed that 32% of South Koreans do not want a foreigner as a neighbour – far higher than 14% in the United States and China’s 12.2%.
The Yemenis took advantage of visa-free access to the tourist island of Jeju. The loophole has been closed to other Yemenis after the uproar.
A recent opinion poll showed that about half of South Koreans oppose accepting the Yemeni asylum seekers, with 39% in favour and 12% undecided.
Around 40 of the new arrivals are staying at a nondescript hotel in Jeju City. Packed four to a room to save money, they take turns to cook Yemeni meals in a basement communal area.
Mohammed Salem Duhaish has been given refuge by a local family, along with his wife and eight-month-old son.
Formerly a worker at the Sana’a airport, he fled after Houthi rebels blew up a nearby airbase.
Salem paid a broker US$600 (RM2,400) for a visa to Oman. From there, he went to Malaysia, where he worked illegally for three years.
The 33-year-old had once hoped to go to the United States, but gave up on the idea once the anti-immigration Trump became president.
Instead, he decided to head for South Korea, saying: “We want the Korean government and people to accept us and deal with us as people who need help.”
How to treat people like Salem will be a key test of human rights in South Korea, said Seoul’s left-leaning Kyunghyang daily.
Millions are believed to have fled the peninsula during Japan’s brutal 1910-45 colonial rule and the 1950-53 Korean War.
“All the tragic events in our modern history drove countless people to leave the country against their will and rely on others’ goodwill in other countries,” it said.
“Embracing these refugees is an opportunity for us to pay back the debt we owe to the international community.” — AFP