The Struggle Continues Against the Continuing Repression of Migrant Rights in South Korea
Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM)
Address: No.4 Jordan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR
Tel. no.: (852) 2723-7536
Fax no.: (852) 2735-4559
Source :  Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants
In January 2002, the Korean Labor Ministry, estimated the numbers of migrant workers in Korea to 331,000. Around 260,000 are undocumented migrants and around 50,000 entered Korea as trainees. Those former trainees were forced to run away from their sponsors due to low wages, and poor working and living conditions. Others entered the country as tourist but with the intention to work.
For the past years, there were series of amnesty programs implemented by the host government in order to allow undocumented migrants to come out into open and volunteer to be repatriated back to their country of origin. This happened in 1992 and 1993 but still many of them chose to remain in the country.
Migrant workers were actually forced by their condition in their home country to remain in Korea despite the amnesty period. Most migrants came from underdeveloped countries and job opportunities in their own county were scarce.
In an interview conducted by the APMM coordinator in Korea to a Filipino migrant, he said, We have no choice but to remain in this country despite the continued threat of arrest and deportation because of the economic hardship in our home country" He further concluded, "If only we have the opportunity to find jobs in the Philippines, why do we have to force ourselves to be here and face all this risk?
The Justice Ministry implemented a registration program for undocumented migrants otherwise known as the "Voluntary Registration Program for Unauthorized Foreigners" or VRPUF. The VRPUF is a two-month amnesty period from March 25 to May 25 which allows migrant workers who overstayed in Korea to register to the Immigration Department and work legally till March 2003 though they are required to leave the country before the end of this period.
If registered, they are also required to remain in their work place and no transfer or change of employment will be allowed. In the case of loss of employment after registration, they will not be allowed to find a new job and they will be forced to leave the country immediately.
After the registration period expires, a massive crackdown will be conducted and they will be required to pay a fine of 10 million won and will be sentenced a jail term of seven years. Before the registration period, the penalty for overstaying is three years imprisonment and a fine of 30 million won ($US24,630).
According to the Equality Trade Union ?Migrant Branch of the Korean Confederation of Trade Union, more than 130,000 undocumented migrants already registered as of 11 May 2002.
VRPUF as a Dangerous Trap
The VRPUF is viewed by many as a dangerous trap because it only provides restrictions and control of migrants and will only legitimize the impending crackdown on undocumented migrants. Whether migrants will register or not, they will still be subjected to forced repatriation.
Forced repatriation is contrary to the interest of undocumented migrants. The reason why they choose to remain in the host country despite prohibition and stiffer penalties is because they do not want to return immediately to their home countries. For them, it is a matter of survival. They will rather take the risk of working as undocumented migrants than to face the consequences of poverty back home.
And without addressing this problem, migrants will still continue to enter the country where opportunities for employment can be found. They do this despite being subjected to different levels and forms of exploitation and abuses both in the receiving and sending countries.
Both the VRPUF and the impending crackdown is not the most socially just solution to the problems of undocumented migrants. On the other hand, the restrictions and control imposed by the host government will only push migrant workers to become more invisible. This in turn will make them more vulnerable to exploitations and abuses.
Protest Action Against the VRPUF
Few days after the implementation of VRPUF, around 1000 migrant workers led by the Equality Trade Union marched to the streets of Seoul to demonstrate their opposition to the VRPUF. This is the first ever demonstration attended by thousand of migrant workers opposing a policy of the host government.
Aside from this, a sit-in protest action was staged inside the Myondong Cathedral. Everyday, migrant workers visit the Cathedral to join the sit-in protest. The sit-in protest is still on-going up to now.
The Struggle Alliance Opposing the Oppression to Migrant Workers and for Achieving Working Visa was formed. The alliance is composed of local migrant advocates and supporters from churches, human rights group, students, workers, women and migrant institutions. It started with 54 member organizations and later expanded to 70 members. The alliance sponsored a series of protest actions and press conferences.
A petition letter was also released by APMM through e-mails and signed by 85 individuals, associations, alliances and federations in different countries worldwide. The petition letter was sent to the office of the President of the Republic of Korea, Mr. Kim Dae-Jung and to the office of the Korean Justice Ministry.
A solidarity protest action was also held in Hong Kong, Philippines, Bangladesh and Canada. A similar petition letter was also presented to the Consulate General of the Korean Consulate in Hong Kong during a picket protest but they refused to accept the letter. Instead, the protester inserted the letter together with their placards to the door of the consulate office.
The Struggle Continues
Recently, a report was received about the deferment of the planned crackdown after the World Cup 2002. The information was disclosed by APMM coordinator in Korea after a recent phone call was received by the ETU-MB from the Immigration Department. This development was viewed as part of the initial victory of the campaign.
The VRPUF is just one of the many issues faced by migrant workers in Korea. There are still issues of the Employment Permit System among trainees which changes the original 2+1 method to 1+2 (one year trainee and two years as worker) and the long time clamor of migrants for the legalization of their stay. On the other hand, they continue to face issues among their respective home country which treat migrants as commodities for export.
A big protest action is also being planned on mid June.
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