Seoul Central Masjid, located in Itaewon, is the first Masjid in Korea. Places for Muslims,
such as Halal restaurants and Halal supermarkets, are also around it.
/Photography by Yoo Joon-sang
The collapse of the Afghanistan government and its takeover by the Taliban has had a global impact. Lots of Afghans are trying to leave their country to escape from the threat of the Taliban. Korea has also accepted 390 Afghans, who have been supporting and cooperating with the Korean government. Most people have agreed on accepting the cooperators and their families. However, some people have shown negative opinions about the government’s decision, and petitions opposing refugee accommodation have been posted on the Cheong Wa Dae website. Civic organizations supporting multicultural families and foreigners living in Korea judge that Koreans are against accepting refugees and showing passive attitude towards multicultural society as they are unwilling to accept the inflow of other races and cultures. How is the current multiculturalization situation of Korea, and what efforts are needed for diverse people to coexist?
Refugees are spreading around the world for various reasons
As the United States (US) declared the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a massive attack by the Taliban, an Islamist religious-political movement and military organization, began. Starting with the western countries which felt a sense of crisis, major embassies in Afghanistan began their withdrawal. Governments worldwide carried out transport operations to protect their citizens, and Korea also safely brought its citizens home through close cooperation with the US. However, the Taliban finally took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. People who have cooperated with western countries flocked to Kabul airport to escape from the Taliban’s revenge. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of August 24th, among 40 million Afghans, about 550,000 people fled for safety in 2021. About 3.5 million displaced people emerged in Afghanistan and there are about 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a “refugee” as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The Arab Spring, a series of unprecedented anti-government protests that spread across many of the Arab countries in the early 2010s, and the civil wars that broke out because of the Arab Spring resulted in countless refugees around the Middle East and North African countries. In addition, people who tried to run away from the threat of extremist militant groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban have also become refugees. According to UNHCR, 20,362,288 refugees have arisen around the world as of 2020, and most of them are distributed around Europe (6,673,149) and East Africa (4,511,575).
Europe has long been suffering from refugee problems. Refugees worldwide have moved into Europe, which is stable in security and rich, and the European countries did not reject refugees on humanitarian grounds. However, as the number of refugees increased rapidly due to disputes around the Arab world, it has become difficult to accept simply from humanitarian grounds. Also, the European economic crisis and antipathy towards multiculturalism due to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism have aroused anti-refugee sentiment. In 2015, a photo caused a major change in European countries’ refugee acceptance stance. It was a picture of a little boy named “Alan Kurdi,” a Syrian boy who died due to a shipwreck and was found on a beach in Turkey. Being found that he was on a ship with his family migrating to Europe to escape the threat of civil war, the whole world, including those who were against accepting refugees, mourned and felt sorry for his death. However, as refugees were concentrated in southern European countries such as Italy and Greece, the necessity of a refugee quota system emerged at the level of the European Union (EU). As the EU insisted on dispersed accommodation, there was extreme opposition from the countries which had to accommodate refugees just because they were European countries despite having nothing to do with the dispute around the Middle East.
What is the current refugee accommodation status of Korea?
After joining the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1992, Korea has also enforced the Refugee Act since 2013 and is accepting refugees under its refugee screening process. According to the Refugee Rights Center (NANCEN), there were a total of 6,684 refugee applications and 69 people were recognized as refugees last year. A total of 1,084 people are living in Korea as refugee recognizers so far. The refugee recognition rate of Korea in 2020 was 0.4%, which is significantly lower than the EU average refugee recognition rate of 32%.
Since the fall of Afghanistan, the Korean government has carried out the “Operation Miracle,” aiming to transfer Afghan employees and their families who have supported the Korean government’s activities in Afghanistan, and 390 Afghans entered Korea on August 26th. They will be housed at the National Human Resources Development Institute located in Chungbuk Innovation City for eight weeks. After going through the COVID-19 test and identification process, they will receive education on adapting to Korean society and culture. This was the first time that the Korean government decided to transfer hundreds of locals from third countries to Korea on humanitarian grounds. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that they agreed on their domestic accommodation policy with the moral responsibility for our colleagues facing severe situations, responsibility as a member of the international community, and the international status as an advanced human rights country. They emphasized that other countries have also accommodated Afghans in a similar situation and as the Afghans entering Korea have been cooperating with the Korean government for a short period of one to two years and a long period of seven to eight years, they have been identified to a certain extent. However, refugees are still considered unfamiliar and scary in Korean society.
There are several reasons why Koreans show resistance against accepting refugees. First, illegal alien problems are arousing anti-refugee sentiment in Korea. Foreign workers from China or Southeast Asia looking for jobs or illegally staying for a long time on short-term visas have become illegal aliens and caused problems. As of 2020, about 400,000 illegal aliens, about 20% of total foreigners, live in Korea. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become unknown infectors and made it difficult to trace infection routes. The high violent crime rate of foreign workers and terrible murders committed by them have also shocked Korean society.
Looking at the social problems caused by refugees in Europe, which actively accepted refugees, it is hard to take a friendly attitude towards accepting refugees. Some Muslim refugees forced their neighbors to follow Sharia law, an Islamic religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition, and even requested to designate Islamic autonomous region so that Sharia laws can be applied within that region. The self-proclaimed Sharia police, composed of young Muslim men, threatened and assaulted those who acted against Sharia law. Besides their religious beliefs, big and small crimes such as terrorism caused by refugees are also serious social problems. In 2016, more than 1,000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa committed indiscriminate crimes such as sexual violence, robbery, and assault against pedestrians in Cologne, Germany, sparkling anti-refugee sentiment throughout the world.
In considering where to accommodate refugees, the NIMBY phenomenon, which means “Not In My Backyard,” can occur. Some residents of Chungbuk Innovation City complained that the government unilaterally decided to accept the Afghans at the National Human Resources Development Institute without communicating with the residents properly. They delivered resident safety measures for the Afghans and a request to transport the Afghans to other regions after the accommodation period to the local government, and more than 1,000 residents signed this request. Many Korean Chinese are living in the southwest area of Seoul. Though the crime rate in this area is not that high compared to other areas, this area is considered relatively dangerous. Suppose refugees enter Korea and get to live in a certain area. In that case, residents of that area are expected to protest as there is a high possibility of negative perceptions being established around that area.
Multicultural society is expanding further and further
Among various opinions on accommodating refugees from different cultures, negative perceptions are still dominant. The reason why Koreans are not favorable to accepting refugees is because they have little understanding of multicultural society. Lim Dong-jin, a professor of Soonchunhyang University, pointed out that it is desirable to accept refugees. Still, Korea has a strong sense of being a single nation and a low proportion of multiculturalism. However, due to the influence of globalization, the proportion of multiculturalism is expected to increase gradually. In general, multicultural society refers to a society composed of members from various social and cultural backgrounds such as races, languages, and religions. With the development of transportation, it is possible to visit and travel to countries worldwide in less than a day. With the development of communication technology, people can enjoy various cultural content from around the world anywhere. Therefore, a transformation to a multicultural society has become inevitable nowadays.
Then, what is the current state of the multicultural society in Korea? According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice on immigration and foreigners staying, as of 2020, the number of foreigners staying in Korea reached 2,036,075, and about 86% (1,756,621) were from Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. Many Asian foreigners are staying in Korea in the order of Korean Chinese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thailander. Why did these people leave their country and come to Korea?
Just as many people left for the US dreaming of the American Dream in the past, the influx of foreign workers coming to Korea dreaming of the Korean Dream is increasing. As Korea has achieved significant economic growth since the 1990s, people have avoided working in the so-called 3D (Difficult, Dirty, and Dangerous) industries. In addition, for the employers, it has been beneficial to hire foreign workers at relatively lower wages than hiring Koreans. This has accelerated the influx of foreign workers in local industrial cities and rural areas.
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family on multicultural families, the number of marriages with foreigners has been on a steady rise, except for 2020, when it became hard to move around the country due to COVID-19. As a result, there were more than 15,300 new international marriage couples last year. In addition, the number of multicultural students born from such marriages reached about 150,000 as of 2020, accounting for 2.8% of all students.
The influx of refugees mentioned above is also one of the reasons for multiculturalism. The US is called a salad bowl of race as various races, including White, Hispanic, African Americans, and Asian Americans, live together. The resettlement program of the US is the largest in the world, allowing more than three million refugees since 1975. The US recognized and accepted their diversity, and their diversity has become the greatest strength as immigrants achieved success in various fields such as science, sports, and culture. As Korea’s international recognition increases, the influx of immigrants and refugee accommodation will gradually increase.
An illustration that shows that diverse racial people can coexist in a salad bowl.
/Illustrated by Lee Jae-eun
Difficulties from multiculturalism exist in Korea
Although Korea is gradually changing into a multicultural society, the tension between immigrants and indigenous people is still high, and conflicts are also arising. In the current multicultural society, not only immigrants but also existing residents are both undergoing difficulties.
Since the past, the identity representing Korea has been called the “Korean race,” and brought a strong perception that Korea is a mono-ethnicity. It refers to a group with the same identity and sense of community. In the case of Korea, history, tradition, and language have been connected as one since the reunification of the late Go-ryeo. This has led to a united ethnicity, inspiring the identity and sense of belonging of Korean people. However, due to globalization which interconnects countries, Korea is becoming multiracial rather than single-racial. Even as Korea is becoming a multicultural society, immigrants are suffering from discrimination because of prejudices. The National Institute for Lifelong Education (NILE) said that Korean society has a severe prejudice against multicultural society. According to a survey of 1,000 people conducted by NILE, 76.2% of them answered that, “Korea is a country with severe racial prejudice.” In addition, regarding the prediction of the social class of multicultural families, the middle and lower class (54%) was highest, followed by the lower class (29%). Thus, the survey showed a strong social stereotype on multicultural families.
The reason for such prejudice is that multicultural society has usually expanded around rural and industrial areas. Currently, the core workforce that covers Korea’s industries is foreign workers. The number of low-skilled foreign employees reached 848,000 in May 2020. Most of them are engaged in hard manual labor such as manufacturing. The increasing number of international marriages in rural communities also intensified prejudice against multicultural society. The proportion of agricultural, forestry and fisheries workers marrying foreigners recorded 11.4% in 2000 and gradually increased to 20.9% in 2019. Although foreign workers contribute to economic development and international marriages help maintain the population of local communities, Korea still has a negative prejudice against immigrants from abroad.
Religious prejudice also intensifies conflicts in Korea’s multicultural society. Some people have been shown to reject residents with a specific religion by associating negative behavior such as terrorism with the religion. On August 30th, a civil organization and international students at Kyungpook National University held a press conference demanding the suspension of discrimination against international students and hatred toward Islam while conflicts over the construction of a mosque in Daegu emerged. Kim, a resident of Gyeonggi-do, said, “I think discrimination over multicultural society in Korea is still severe. Especially, the elderly citizens react more sensitively when they see foreigners just because they look dissimilar from typical appearance of Korean.”
Current multicultural policies are controversial for immigrants and indigenous people
The multicultural policy implemented in Korea aims to integrate immigrants. Immigrant integration is classified into structural, cultural, social, and identity integration. It commonly supports immigrants to settle stably and feel a sense of belonging. However, while various policies are being enforced, there are still many problems with the integration of immigrants.
First, there is a lack of cooperation between the subjects implementing various policies since a ministry dedicated to multicultural policies does not exist. Even though central ministries such as the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Employment and Labor, are attempting to implement policies, the association between ministries is weak as they are implementing policies individually. Furthermore, since each ministry separately promotes immigration policies, blind spots for policies are also occurring. For example, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family targets marriage immigrants and multicultural families, and the Ministry of Justice targets foreigners and naturalized citizens in Korea. Due to a lack of connection between these ministries, immigrants are alienated from necessary policies.
Although the problem is the discrimination that immigrants experience while living in Korea or alienation from policies, reverse discrimination, which Koreans are undergoing, is also a problem. In particular, the multicultural policy that causes the most reverse discrimination on indigenous people is the support for immigrants to settle in Korea. To support the settlement of immigrants, the government and each ministry are implementing various policies. Especially, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport provides housing within 10% of national housing for multicultural family members who have lived in the same residence for more than three years. In the case of the Ministry of Employment and Labor, they are promoting entry into the Korean labor market by providing vocational education programs for immigrants. Such policies are necessary for immigrants to settle stably in foreign country. Still, some people have pointed out that the government will provide excessive benefits to immigrants while hindering social integration and causing conflicts due to reverse discrimination on indigenous people. A petition criticizing reverse discrimination and insisting on legislation to stop alienating native people from multicultural policies appeared on the Cheong Wa Dae website. Likewise, there is still the public opinion that negatively views reverse discrimination.
In the case of refugees from Afghanistan, the Korean government said that they would extend the sojourn of refugees through a long-term visa after granting them a short-term visa (C-3) as partners. The National Security Council (NSC) mentioned that they had inspected initial measures to help Afghanistan partners and their families settle in Korea through a regular meeting on September 2nd. However, there have also been voices of concern about such measures in the online community. saying that support for immigrants could lead to the exclusion of indigenous people.
Korea should move toward a multicultural society where everyone coexists
Korea is heading to a multicultural society through various factors such as foreign workers, international marriage, and refugees. This trend is expected to become more common not only in Korea but also all around the world. Now, it is time to understand different people. To move toward a multicultural society where everyone coexist, a perspective, which is analogously called a “Salad bowl,” must be premised.
Salad bowl theory, which has emerged as an alternative to the melting pot theory, is one of the theories explaining multiculturalism that appeared as globalization was promoted in the late 20th century. Melting pot theory means that people of various cultures create a homogeneous culture. However, it could be a problem in that various cultural elements are rejected in the process of creating a new culture. Unlike the melting pot theory, the salad bowl theory means that people of various cultures protect their own culture and harmonize such cultural elements. For example, the United States, where multiple cultures and races exist, is a salad bowl society. If Korea’s previous consciousness of one nation was a melting pot, a multicultural society is a salad bowl. Prejudice based on a single-race nation rejects other cultures. As immigrants of more diverse races and cultures flow into Korea, a salad bowl, which means harmonizing while maintaining each other's identity.
To become a salad bowl society, it is necessary to eliminate prejudices. The biggest problem in Korea is prejudice based on race, and prevalent discrimination. In the multicultural policy proposed by the government in 2021, the “formation of a social atmosphere that respects mutual culture” was presented. It implied that there is a need to understand and respect other cultures to solve the problem of discrimination.
Cultural coercion is one of the key issues which immigrants and indigenous people are conflicted. Since they have lived with different cultures, their lifestyle and mindsets may also be dissimilar. However, enforcing Korean culture to immigrants just because they live in Korea can lead to cultural coercion, and it should be avoided. On the other hand, immigrants should not either enforce their culture on indigenous people. The most concerning problem about the current refugee crisis is religion. Most of the refugees are Muslims, and indigenous people are worried about the universalization of unethical doctrines resulting from Islamic faith. This is because religious doctrines can lead to crime in different cultures. Therefore, understanding between two cultures are necessary. While acknowledging the differences, one should be able to adapt to other culture rather than rigidly maintaining it.
Both immigrants and indigenous people have been experiencing inconveniences due to the imperfect multicultural policies. The government designated one of the goals of multicultural policies in 2021 as “building public consensus on policies.” This is to resolve the controversy over inequality arose from multicultural policies. They have decided to introduce standards that everyone can accept in selecting beneficiaries of policies. Therefore, a definite criterion will solve the problem of comparative deprivation that may arise for both immigrants and indigenous people. Also, the government has decided to provide welfare services without any blind spots. They are planning to investigate the current status of multicultural families exactly and revise the law to protect immigrants from crimes. Moreover, they can easily search for information by using the official portal site of the government called “Government 24” without visiting each ministry’s website to receive benefits. Kim Hyun-jung, a Professor of Dong-a University, said that Korea should implement a multicultural policy based on magnanimity, and adapt the policy of Germany to resolve the problem of alienation and exclusion. She pointed out that Germany has formed a multicultural society by accommodating diverse ethnic backgrounds and revitalizing mutual interchanges between immigrants and indigenous people.
As the influence of globalization increases, the speed of multiculturalization in Korea is expected to accelerate. However, if understanding and support for immigrants are not sufficient, the conflict is likely to intensify again. Professor Kim added that Korea had difficulty in social integration as it tried to assimilate minorities into mainstream society in its policies. However, she said that if our society pursues inclusive immigration policy, the value of diversity will increase and social members will be in harmony at the same time. To become a multicultural society, it is important to recognize diversity and respect each other. Currently, Korea is in a transition period toward a new social form. Both immigrants and indigenous people have to strive to become a salad bowl society.
Lee Jae-eun, Yoo Joon-sang email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
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