South Korea and its neighbours have strict immigration laws that make it hard for asylum seekers to find a permanent home - but hopes are high as these East Asian nations face a population crisis.
More than 550 Yemeni refugees have been stuck on the South Korean island of Jeju since the end of 2017. Their future hangs in the balance thanks mainly to Korean opposition towards granting asylum to Yemenis.
The asylum seekers travelled as tourists to the visa-free holiday spot between 2016 and 2018 and applied for asylum during their stay due to the ongoing war in Yemen.
Although South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates on earth, its migration and asylum regulations are strict - as are those of its regional neighbours such as Japan and Taiwan.
Refugees on a small Korean island
So how exactly did these Yemenis land on this small island in the first place? The story is straightforward but has shocked Southern Koreans.
Thousands of Yemenis apply for asylum in Malaysia every year. They don’t require a visa to visit the Southeast Asian state - one of the world’s few visa-free destinations for Yemeni citizens. Their stay in the country is restricted to 90 days.
Yemenis who do not want to return to their country and cannot gain asylum in Malaysia need to find a new destination. Outside of Ecuador or the Korean island of Jeju, there are no real options.
Another factor that pushed Yemenis towards Jeju was that Air Asia started direct flights between one of the busiest airports worldwide - Kuala Lumpur International Airport - and Jeju International Airport at the beginning of 2017, to attract tourists to the island.
Around 80 percent of the visitors to the island were Chinese tourists, but after South Korea installed an anti-missile system against its ‘northern rival’, Beijing felt targeted, and the number of Chinese visiting the island declined drastically from 2018.
To fill the gap, the Jeju administration followed a policy of visa-free travel for tourists. Air Asia also started offering cheap flights between Malaysia and Jeju for only $70 in 2017. Yemeni asylum seekers stuck in Malaysia made use of the conditions and flight offer and flew to their new destination.
With few other options outside of Ecuador, Sudan or the Korean island, the Yemenis chose the closest and cheapest place - which came as a surprise to the local migration office and the people of Jeju.
The visa-free privilege changed in June 2018 - but hundreds of Yemenis were already on the island and some of them are believed to have made their way to mainland Korea.
“The reputation of migrants is not good,” Korean journalist Kang Hyung-kyung told TRT World.
“Coverage about migrants from the Middle East accused of raping women, like the 2015-16 New Year’s Eve case in Germany, had a huge impact on the general opinion of Koreans on migrants [from the Middle East].”
Months after the incident it came out that the accusations against refugees was not true- but this part of news probably never reached Koreans.
Strict migration rules despite low birth rates - Japan, Taiwan and South Korea
Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are among the countries with the lowest birth rates globally - with 1.21, 1.32 and 1.47 children per mother respectively.
Low birth rates over decades mean the countries lack a young workforce and have a rapidly ageing population. In this situation, financing social services and pensions become difficult, and eventually, the economy will decline if the need for human capital is not met.
The Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research illustrates this phenomenon in its projections for Japan. According to its report, if the Japanese birth and mortality trends of recent years continue, the country’s population will shrink from around 127 million people in 2014 to just under 100 million by 2050, and just under 50 million people by the year 2100.
This will be accompanied by a significant deterioration in the age structure of society. The share of the 65+ age group in the total population will rise from a quarter at present to just under 40 percent in 2050. The proportion of Japanese citizens of working age (taken as between 15 and 64 years old) will fall from 61 percent to slightly more than 50 percent in the same period.
It is not hard to imagine the economic consequences this might have for Japan. The case is not much different in South Korea and Taiwan. However, none of the three countries counters its need for a young population via migration. Only 1.75 percent of Japan’s population is made up of foreigners, in South Korea 3.4 percent are foreign, and in Taiwan 3.3 percentof the population is foreign, as of 2016
Neither through direct migration nor asylum do these three countries accept migration from abroad.
The head of the South Korean Global InnerPeace institution, based on Jeju island, told TRT World: “These asylum seekers would be accepted in many EU countries but because of the stricter standards [of asylum], not in Korea.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Justice tried to give asylum seekers the right to work in the fishing and aquaculture farming industries by employing 200 of them. According to locals, this came as a relief for the island’s fishing industry which is facing labour shortages.
The opportunity to work in the fishing industry has given some hope to the Yemeni asylum seekers that they have a future in the country, but none of the East Asian nations in question has publicly considered easing rigid immigration laws and paving the way for more multicultural and younger populations.
Populations that South Korea, Japan and Taiwan sorely need.