Posted on June 21, 2019

Muslim, Arabs Denied Refugee Status Through ‘Rigged’ Interviews in Korea

Lee Suh-yoon, Korea Times, June 17, 2019

Mohamad Sabry came to Korea in July 2016 to seek asylum. In his refugee interview, Sabry told the immigration officer he faced political persecution in Egypt for being an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The official didn’t write this down.

“My interview was totally fabricated as they wrote that I had said like this in the interview: I confessed what I wrote in the application was false and I came to Korea to work as I had no job in Egypt,” Sabry told reporters at a press conference organized by NANCEN, a refugee support group, at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea office in Seoul, Tuesday.

Sabry is one of the victims of a deliberately rigged interview process against Muslim and Arab asylum seekers by multiple immigration officers under the Ministry of Justice here.

In Tuesday’s press conference, five asylum seekers ― three of them now refugees ― spoke out about how certain immigration officials discriminated against them and deliberately falsified their interview testimony. The problem first surfaced in 2017, after NANCEN and other NGOs came across multiple cases where testimony given by Arab or Muslim asylum seekers during refugee interviews were deliberately altered by immigration officers who recorded them ― making up pieces and leaving out crucial claims while adding false information that made the applicants look like they came in Korea just to find a job.

The pattern was disturbing and clear. Screening officers made up previous jobs held by the applicants or fabricated reasons for seeking asylum that were never said in the interview. In one case, a woman was recorded as a man. Human rights groups collected some of the detected cases and took legal steps.

In October 2017, the Seoul Administrative Court recognized for the first time that the ministry’s screening process had “procedural flaws,” prompting the justice ministry to conduct an internal investigation and cancel 55 of its refugee status rejections in order to conduct further reviews. The problem, however, still continues according to the rights groups. NANCEN alone found 18 other such cases last year and reported them to the rights commission.

Another who testified, Rahim (pseudonym), a human rights filmmaker from Egypt who arrived in Korea in 2016, said immigration officers refused to take 500 pages worth of evidence ― as well as videos ― that showed how he was arrested and persecuted by the Egyptian authorities for his political activities.

“The immigration officer at the counter refused to take them and told me I have to translate them init to Korean on my own,” Rahim said. He later tried to submit them to the officer but was refused again. “Officers said they didn’t need them and said if they needed information, they would ask the Egyptian government.”

Rahim was eventually denied refugee status. While preparing a court appeal with his lawyer, he found out the officer had recorded false information in his interview file.

“The script contained false information and answers I never said, saying I worked in the construction field. She also wrote (that I said) I came here for making money and never faced any danger or discrimination in Egypt.”

The global refugee crisis is sending increasing waves of asylum seekers to Korea. According to the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report released Wednesday, the number of people uprooted by conflict and persecution topped 70 million in 2018. This figure ― around the population of Thailand ― is double the refugee agency count in 1999.

Of this 70 million, around 30 million have fled their country of origin ― 88 percent of whom have received refugee status at their destinations. Korea has granted refugee status to just under 4 percent of asylum applicants since 1994, when it first started accepting refugees.

“What we are seeing in these figures is further confirmation of a longer-term rising trend in the number of people needing safety from war, conflict and persecution,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a press statement.

More than 20,000 asylum seekers were waiting for replies from local immigration offices in Korea at the end of April, according to disclosed government data.