South Korea denies refugee status to hundreds of Yemenis

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Wednesday denied refugee status to nearly 400 asylum seekers from war-torn Yemen months after their arrival on the resort island of Jeju sparked an anti-immigrant uproar.

Instead, the Justice Ministry granted one-year humanitarian stays to 339 Yemenis who had applied for asylum, saying their safety and freedom would be put at risk if forced to leave.

The ministry rejected stay permits for 34 other Yemenis, but said they can appeal. The ministry postponed its decision on 85 applicants, citing the need for further interviews.

South Korea issued one-year stay permits to 23 other Yemenis in September but has not granted refugee status to any of the 481 Yemenis who have applied for it. The ministry did not give a clear explanation of why the applicants failed to meet its standards for refugee status.

The Yemenis who received the stay permits will have to reapply after their one-year term expires if they want to remain in South Korea. The ministry said it could refuse to renew the permits if the situation in Yemen stabilizes and becomes safe for the asylum seekers to return home.

South Korea, the recipient of large-scale international military and humanitarian interventions during the 1950-53 Korean War, has granted refugee status to only a fraction of asylum seekers since 1994, when it began accepting applications. South Korea’s culture greatly values ethnic homogeneity and people often guard fiercely against outsiders.

About 500 Yemenis arrived in Jeju earlier this year, taking advantage of the island’s tourist policy that allows foreigners visa-free entry for up to 30 days.

Since then, there have been a series of protests in Jeju and in the capital, Seoul, in which demonstrators called for deportation of the Muslim asylum seekers they viewed as “fake refugees” stealing jobs and posing a threat to local safety.

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