SEOUL, July 27 (UPI) -- An Egyptian asylum seeker who fled to South Korea from political oppression said the Korean translation of his interview in the process differed from what he said.
The transcript, posted online by the Center for Refugee Rights, stated he came for legal status to work and earn money and didn't fear any persecution upon his return to Egypt. He was denied asylum and immediately appealed the decision, but was rejected by the immigration office based on the translated interview transcript.
The center found 19 similar cases of ill-translated refugee screening interviews last year. The Seoul-based civic group discovered "fake translations" occurred frequently in screening interviews of those from Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt.
South Korea has been accepting asylum seekers based on its commitment to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines refugees and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. The number of asylum seekers to South Korea has jumped from 148 in 2004 to a record 9,942 in 2017.
Despite increasing applications, chances for getting refugee status are slim. Less than 1 percent of applicants are granted refugee status. In 2017, 27 were accepted as a refugee, 0.4 percent of the total applicants, while 318 were permitted to stay on humanitarian visas without welfare support.
Refugee advocates have criticized Seoul, saying it grants a very small number of applications by tightening its refugee determination system. Their review of the system has found problems with how South Korea handles applications.
Interviews falsely translated
Those who enter the country in need of protection go through interviews with immigration officials. Applicants are asked for the reasons they left their native countries and dangers they would face upon returning. The interview records serve as important evidence in determining their refugee status.
However, some interpreters for lesser-used languages, like as Arabic, are not qualified enough to offer an accurate translation. They often miss important details of refugees' stories and the misinterpretation ends in their rejection.
"What asylum seekers say in screening interviews is crucial in determining their refugee status. We've found cases of falsely translated interviews. The Ministry of Justice has not taken any responsibility for this," Koh Eun-ji, director of the Center for Refugee Rights, said at a seminar on racial discrimination last week in Seoul.
A Yemeni man was also rejected based on a questioned translation. He filed a lawsuit and during trials, attorneys said the translation was fabricated by an immigration official and an interpreter.
The Justice Ministry, which oversees immigration officials who conduct the interviews, ultimately canceled its rejection of the Yemeni refugee and he was reunited with his wife and children.
Cha Gyu-geun, chief of the Korean Immigration Service, told Yonhap in May: "We need a new immigration policy that doesn't violate both foreigners' human rights and the rights of South Korean citizens."
Many questionable cases are not discovered.
"Even if asylum seekers discover there were missing parts in the final transcript, there is no way to prove because many interviews are not recorded or videotaped," said Kim Ji-rim, an attorney for the non-profit human rights foundation Gong Gam.
The South Korean Immigration Office began to record interviews in 2014, but only 818 of nearly 10,000 interviews were recorded last year.
One thing that discourages asylum seekers from voicing concerns in the application process might be intimidation.
A political activist from Kashmir who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he felt threatened by South Korean immigration officials.
"Discrimination starts from the point you enter the country," he told UPI.
The activist fought for independence in Kashmir and came to South Korea in 2013 to escape repression and persecution.
"I stayed in the detention center for two years and six months. It's worse than a prison," he said.
Asylum applicants who have no residence in the country can stay in so-called foreigner protection centers, run by the Ministry of Justice, but he said the living conditions there are squalid.
"In prison, they allow some hours to walk around inside. In the detention center, you stay whole time behind the bars," he said.
The activist said he felt he was treated as a criminal, not a refugee.
"When you go an immigration office with your application, you feel like you came here as a criminal," he said.
Such intimidation prevails in other cases.
"I was helping a guy who was applying for asylum and an immigration official told the guy not to sit until she told him to sit," he said.
Refugee advocates say the South Korean government's asylum process fails to meet the U.N. Refugee Convention, which requires states to offer a fair and efficient refugee determination process.
Inciting fears against Yemeni refugees
Critics say the asylum process doesn't adhere to international standards and is often swayed by hateful and anti-refugee public opinion.
The South Korean government's response to a recent surge of Yemeni refugees is an example, they say.
"They treat Yemenis as potential criminals. Rather than saying asylum seekers need protection according to an international law, they announce plans to strengthen patrolling public areas where refugees gather frequently, further inciting fears among the South Korean public against Yemenis," said Baek Ga-yun of Jeju Committee of Human Rights for Refugees.
The Immigration Office of Jeju blocked Yemenis' travel outside the island on April 30 and exempted Yemen from the list of visa-free entry countries on May 1.
Activists say the response to Yemenis fleeing war shows Seoul is incapable of offering protection and encourages anti-refugee rhetoric.
An online petition against the admittance of Yemeni asylum seekers collected 700,000 signatures on the presidential office website, and more requests against refugees are being posted online.
The Ministry of Justice announced it would dispatch more staff members to the Jeju Immigration Office to speed up the review process.
"The Jeju Immigration Office is understaffed to conduct a quick review. If the process lasts long, fears among people in Jeju would grow. And Yemenis who need immediate protection would not be able to be protected for a long period of time," the Ministry said in an email to UPI. "That's why we are trying to speed the review process by sending extra staff members."
Advocates say the government's biased perception against Yemenis incites xenophobia and racism.
"While the government was reluctant to convey a clear message for their duty to offer protection for asylum seekers, hateful words against refugees have taken place," Baek said.