Jobs, food and lodging are being provided as awareness is raised of Yemenis' struggle because locals eye them with suspicion
Yemeni refugees arriving on the resort island of Jeju, South Korea, receive legal advice at the Naomi Migrant Pastoral Center on June 23. Their faces have been blurred to protect their identity. (Photo by The Catholic Times of Korea)
As prejudice builds against Yemeni refugees arriving on the southern island of Jeju, the Catholic Church in Korea is reinforcing its support for them while making efforts to raise awareness about their plight.
Drawn by its tourist-friendly visas and fleeing civil war and even torture back home, they began arriving in this semi-tropical island in the spring and now number around 560 as they seek a save haven.
The asylum seekers have been aided by the Naomi Migrant Pastoral Center in Jeju Diocese, which has been providing them with accommodation, jobs, daily necessities, schooling for their children and more.
The diocese has given priority to offering lodging to families with pregnant women or children and has urged local Christians to pitch in by issuing weekly notices and bulletins.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea has also decided to actively cooperate in offering them support.
"With the close cooperation of Jeju Diocese, we will take steps to offer multilateral support and education for the children," said Father David Cha Kwang-joon, secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Foreign Residents Living in Korea.
However, not everyone has welcomed them to the country or island.
A petition posted on the official website of the presidential Blue House on June 13 demanded the government revise the law on refugees as well as Jeju's visa-waiver program to stop more Yemeni asylum seekers from entering. Over 400,000 people had signed the petition as late June.
Father Cha said he is trying to wipe out the negative perception of the refugees among local people on the island.
"Some people consider them dangerous but such fears are groundless," he said.
Joseph Shin Kang-hyup, a local rights activist, said: "We need to launch more initiatives to understand people from different cultures. We should create more educational programs to raise awareness, not only of the refugees but Islamic culture in general."
Bishop John Baptist Jung Shin-chul of Incheon, president of the bishops’ committee, added: "The church has always welcomed them with a friendly attitude and sees them as our brothers and sisters. We aim to keep lending them our support."
A bitter civil war has been raging in Yemen since 2014.
South Korea is a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and the first country in Asia to establish and enact its own Refugee Act in 2013.
Jeju allows most foreigners to stay without a visa for 30 days but for the Yemeni refugees the province has extended this to three months.
Most of them flew over from Malaysia, which now offers direct flights to Jeju and where there are believed to be about 20,000 Yemenis.
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