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Korean Catholics urged to protect migrants, refugees

About 13,000 undocumented immigrants left South Korea this year amid a government crackdown
Migrants from South America perform a traditional dance to mark World Migrants and Refugees Day at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 24.

Migrants from South America perform a traditional dance to mark World Migrants and Refugees Day at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 24. (Photo: Archdiocese of Seoul)

Published: September 27, 2023 08:06 AM GMT
Updated: September 27, 2023 10:26 AM GMT

A top Church leader in South Korea has urged Catholics to protect the rights of migrants amid a government crackdown on undocumented immigrants and alleged rights violations in detention facilities.

“We must protect the rights that immigrants and refugees deserve,” said Archbishop Peter Chung Soon-taick of Seoul.

“We must guarantee the right to work freely, the right for children to receive an education, and especially the right to live without social pressure,” Chung added.

The prelate made the remarks in a homily during a commemorative Mass on World Migrants and Refugees Day on Sept. 24, the archdiocesan news portal Good News reported on Sept. 25.

The multi-lingual Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul was themed “Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay”.

A cultural event following the Mass showcased traditional culture including music and dance performed by migrant communities.

Among the estimated 1,000 participants were local clergy, laypeople and migrant workers from various countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Mongolia, Indonesia and South America.

Chung appealed to Catholics to pay more attention to the needs of migrants forced to leave their homeland for various seasons including violence.

“People have no choice but to leave to avoid various social violence. We must pay attention to those who had to leave their [places],” Chung added.

The Catholic Church introduced World Migrants and Refugees Day in 1914 to highlight the rights and needs, and for the protection of migrants and refugees across the world.

One of Asia’s economic powerhouses, South Korea has been facing a demographic crisis fueled by a low birth rate and rapidly aging population.

Despite, the government spending about 280 trillion won ($212 billion) over the past 15 years, it has failed to prevent the nation’s fertility rate falling at the world's fastest pace, Nikkei Asia reported.

To overcome a labor force deficit, the government has welcomed foreign migrant workers.

The state-run Korean Statistics Department estimates the nation has 1.3 million legal migrants.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry estimates about 410,000 foreign nationals are living in the country illegally.

Some 13,000 undocumented migrants left the country following a crackdown and a voluntary departure program in March and April, Yonhap news agency reported in May.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International have voiced concerns over the treatment of refugees and migrants in the country.

In its 2022 – 2023 report, Amnesty said “violations of the rights of foreign nationals [has] continued at detention centers” in South Korea.

The rights group also noted a June 2021 incident in which Hwaseong detention center officials allegedly hog-tied a Moroccan detainee.

In February 2022, the Ministry of Justice, and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) acknowledged the rights violation.

However, in May 2022, the ministry announced a revision of the Immigration Control Act to introduce equipment and chairs that can bind upper and lower body limbs simultaneously, Amnesty reported.

Along with rights groups, the Catholic Church in South Korea has also been vocal about alleged rights violations and mistreatment of refugees and migrants.

In February, the Church along with civic groups criticized a government crackdown caled "Five-Year Plan to Reduce Illegal Stay" which aims to cut the number of undocumented migrant workers from 410,000 to 200,000 by 2028.

Church leaders have pointed out that “abuse or unfair treatment” from employers was also a reason why many become undocumented and have called for a review of the work permit system.

Since last October, the Justice Ministry along with other government agencies have begun conducting raids and document verification of migrant laborers.

The Catholic Church has established organizations to assist migrant communities.

Following on-site investigations in July, the NHRCK issued a report with recommendations to improve facilities for inmates in immigrant detention centers.

The recommendations include better internet connectivity, permitting food from outside, and more outdoor exercise for inmates.

Inmates are only allowed 30 minutes of internet access per week, food is considered inadequate, and daily exercise lasts less than 20 minutes.

The commission also urged the authorities to improve meals and refrain from using excessive force.

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