Korea urged to fix immigration policies

One of an ongoing series of articles on Korean immigration policies or lack thereof, along with changing demographics:

In recent decades, South Korea has emerged as a global economic powerhouse and become a core member of the international community. Leading the transformation have been many Korean individuals and companies who have written success stories in different parts of the world.

Joining the league of advanced countries, the country has strengthened its overseas presence and raised its global profile both economically by expanding exports and diplomatically by increasing its donations to developing nations.

However, despite its successful ascension to the world stage, Korea is considered neither internationalized nor inclusive. Society here is still insular, failing to embrace different cultures, races and nationalities.

Such closed-mindedness is preventing Asia’s fourth-largest economy from moving forward, as the country is facing grave demographic challenges ― an aging population, a low birthrate and a declining workforce.

In this regard, creating an “inclusive society” to bridge the gap between Koreans and non-Koreans should be at the top of the agenda for the Moon Jae-in administration in 2021, to ensure sustainable growth and future prosperity for the country.

Reforming immigration policies

As Korea enters 2021 with its looming demographic crisis, attracting young, skilled immigrants through an open migration policy may be one of the key strategies to address the sharp decline in the population.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of foreign nationals staying in the country for more than three months was around 1.73 million as of December 2019 ― adding in short-term visitors, and the estimated number hit a record high of 2.52 million.

The number has been increasing almost annually from the 1.89 million tallied in 2015. With the stagnating native Korean population growth, the ratio of foreign nationals among the nation’s total population has also grown from 3.6 percent that year to 4.8 percent in 2019.

The Statistics Korea forecast in 2019 predicted that people with migrant backgrounds ― foreigners, naturalized Koreans, and second generation migrants ― are expected to account for more than 5 percent of the total population in 2024, which will constitute a “multicultural, multiracial society” according to OECD standards.

It is expected that foreign nationals will continue to play a more important part in Korean society, which means the country should lay the groundwork for inclusivity through detailed immigration policies.

These are important as they not only guide migrants’ integration into the economic, social, cultural and political spheres of society, but also shape how the native population perceives migrants and immigration.

Foreign residents and members of multicultural families living in the country shared with The Korea Times their thoughts on current immigration policies and what improvements the country needs to make in 2021.

“The biggest problem with the current immigration policies is that they are scattered across several ministries. The government needs a control tower to formulate integrated plans,” said Jasmine Lee, chairwoman of the Korea Cultural Diversity Organization.

Naturalized in Korea, Lee from the Philippines also pointed out that the country does not even have a legal definition of an immigrant.

Currently, the Ministry of Justice manages visa applications and foreign entry, while the Ministry of Employment and Labor monitors and regulates migrant workers who enter the country under the Employment Permit System (EPS), and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family runs policies related to marriage migrants and their families.

The former lawmaker viewed that the absence of a high-level government body in charge of drafting a framework is the main reason why the country is failing to implement coherent immigration policies.

Much of the policies are focused on inviting low-skilled workers for temporary stays, and encouraging international marriage without giving sufficient opportunities for marriage migrants to fully adapt to society, she said.

“Most importantly, for an inclusive society, support measures for migrants should be drawn up not out of sympathy toward them, but based on the idea that they are equal members of our society,” she said.

Lee stated that among the bills currently being discussed at the National Assembly, the legislation of the Anti-Discrimination Law will be a start in providing equal rights to all foreign residents and eradicating prejudice against them.

‘Foreign workers are backbone of Korea’s economy’

Shekh al Mamun, a senior member of a migrant workers’ union under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said the government’s low level of awareness on equality during the COVID-19 pandemic has disappointed many foreign workers, who were discriminated against in the administration’s mask distribution plan as well as the disaster relief funding programs.

He stressed that the policies for migrant workers, who mainly work in factories and farms in rural areas, should be based on the recognition that they are an essential component of Korea’s economy, not a workforce performing the so-called “3D” (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs that Koreans shun.

“The first step in doing this would be guaranteeing workers the freedom to change workplaces by making changes to the EPS, which hasn’t been properly revised since it was introduced in 2004,” Shekh said.

Migrant workers under the EPS enter Korea with a contract that initially allows them to work for up to three years. The contract can be extended by one year and 10 months with the employer’s consent, and “diligent workers” are also allowed to re-enter the country after they return to their homeland.

However, as re-contracting and reentry permits are very dependent on employers, workers can get tied to them, leaving themselves open to those who exploit the system to their own advantage, according to the union.

“Thousands of workers a year suffer from unfair treatment such as delayed payments and horrendous accommodation. They are also prevented from applying for compensation for industrial accidents or demanding retirement pay out of fear that their contract will not be extended,” Shekh explained.

He hoped that this year, the government will finally respond to their years-long demands and improve the system.

“We are not asking for tons of additional money to fix the problem. What we need are genuine changes that will guarantee safe working environments and fundamental labor rights, which should be provided to everyone in the country.”

Fixing ‘bureaucratic’ approach

Wang Ji-yeon, head of Migrant Women Association in Korea, believes that many of the “bureaucratic policies” that the government comes up with are failing to provide actual help to multicultural families in need.

Wang, a marriage migrant from China who has been working as a migrants’ rights activist for 12 years, said that over the years, support for multicultural families has increased in quantity, but not in quality.

According to government data, there are over 200 support measures provided to marriage migrants and their families.

“The figures create a misperception among native Koreans that the government is spending too much on multiracial families, which is not true,” Wang said. She urged the government to disclose full data to the public on the operation of multicultural policies and regularly receive feedback from beneficiaries to eliminate unnecessary measures.

Moreover, while the current support mainly focuses on the family life of foreign-born wives, it should be expanded to their social and cultural activities as more and more women are seeking career development and preparing for a stable life in their later years.

Education on cultural diversity needed

Students from multicultural backgrounds face challenges due to discrimination and social prejudice. Lee Chan-yeong, a high school student born to a Filipina mother and Korean father, suggests that this can be improved through early education in and outside of schools.

“Many people are not used to cultural diversity, probably because they grew up and were educated in a technically homogeneous country,” said Lee, a second grader at Jeonbuk National University High School in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province.

While schools should ensure that mandatory educational programs on cultural diversity and anti-discrimination are given in the classroom, the government and media should improve their representations of biracial families, he suggested.

“Documentaries, news articles and movies on multicultural children tend to focus only on the dark side such as school bullying, economic hardship, poor fluency in Korean and so on. As the media has a big influence on teens, this negativity may create misperceptions,” he said.

Lee added that more positive content using public advertising and YouTube videos on cultural and ethnic diversity should be developed.

Source: Korea urged to fix immigration policies

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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