The Justice Ministry said Friday it will seek to revise the Refugee Act to prevent fake asylum seekers from abusing the system and take steps to handle refugee applications much more quickly to screen out bogus claimants.
The measures came amid growing anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea sparked by the arrivals in recent months of more than 500 Yemeni asylum seekers on the southern resort island of Jeju under a no-visa program aimed at promoting tourism.
Revision of the Refugee Act will be made in a way that lays "legal grounds for preventing the abuse of the refugee system for economic purposes or as a means to stay in the country regardless of the necessity for protection," the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also said it will increase the number of officers tasked with reviewing refugee applications to significantly reduce the time necessary for deliberations so as to "protect genuine refugees quickly and deal sternly with fake applicants."
As a first step, six more officers, including two interpreters, will be assigned to the Jeju immigration office. The ministry aims to reduce the time necessary for initial deliberations from the current eight months to two to three months.
The ministry also said it will establish a refugee tribunal to speed up the appeals process.
The entry of the Yemeni asylum seekers has sparked worries that many of them could be bogus claimants seeking jobs and other economic advantages, that similar arrivals could follow, and their presence would lead to increases in crime and other social problems.
More than 500,000 people have signed a petition with the presidential office, expressing opposition to accepting refugees and calling for revision or repeal of the Refugee Act. Some have vowed to hold a protest rally this weekend.
The government has banned the Yemeni asylum seekers from leaving the island for other parts of South Korea, and added the Middle Eastern nation to a list of countries whose nationals cannot enter Jeju without a visa.
South Korea began accepting refugee applications in 1994 after acceding to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992. The country also enacted the Refugee Act in 2013, becoming the first Asian country to pass its own refugee legislation.
However, the country has not been generous in granting refugee status.
A total of 40,407 people have applied for asylum here since 1994. Of them, the government has completed its deliberation on 20,361 cases and granted refugee status to just 839, or 4.1 percent.
Currently, only 38 immigration officials handle refugee applications across the country. Last year, they dealt with 9,942 applications, or more than 300 cases per official. This is why the initial review of an application can take at least six months. (Yonhap News)