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Statement of preliminary observations delivered by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, M. Mutuma Ruteere on 6 October 2014 on conclusion of official visit to the Republic of Korea

6 October 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank you for coming to this press conference today and for your interest in my visit to the Republic of Korea. This marks the conclusion of my official visit to the Republic of Korea from 29 September to 6 October 2014. This visit is the first visit by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance to the Republic of Korea. During my visit, I held meetings in Seoul, Sejong City, Busan, Changwon, and Ansan. I have met with representatives from the Government of Korea, at the national level, the judiciary, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, United Nations agencies present in the country, non-governmental organizations, community members and other groups and individuals working in the field of racism, as well as migrant workers and asylum-seekers. Regrettably, I did not meet with Ministers even though I had requested for meetings at that level. However I would like to thank the Government of Korea for the invitation and for arranging such a variety of meetings on a tight schedule. I am also extremely grateful to my interlocutors from civil society including NGOs who have been very helpful to my visit. 

The Republic of Korea has made important progress in addressing the issue of racism and xenophobia considering its history of ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Only recently, as the country has industrialized rapidly over the past decades has it been faced with the progressive arrival of foreigners and migrant workers and opened up to multiculturalism and cultural diversity. These developments have provoked an important and essential debate on multiculturalism, racism and racial discrimination in the country.

The Republic of Korea is a State party to a number of international instruments against discrimination, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and more recently the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. On the constitutional and legal framework, the Republic of Korea has strong provisions against discrimination, supported by an independent National Human Rights Commission and a very strong and vocal civil society. It is important that the country builds upon this progress in confronting the emerging challenges related to the arrival of foreigners and migrant workers who are contributing to social change and a shift from a migrant-sending country to a migration destination.

I have been made aware of the numerous efforts made by the Government in order to support multicultural families and in particular, the comprehensive assistance to help integrate marriage migrants and their children as full members of the Korean society. I have been informed of the series of laws and policies enacted by the Korean Government, including the Social Integration Policy for Marriage Immigrants and their Children, the Marriage Brokers Business Management Act and the Multicultural Families Support Act. In addition, numerous services for multicultural families have been made available such as the Multicultural Families Support Centres throughout the country which offer language classes and counseling to both spouses and provide support for the marriage migrant and their children to settle and integrate into Korean society. The Republic of Korea has also enacted a comprehensive Refugee Act which entered into force last year.

Nevertheless, I have been informed that the concept of multicultural families as currently interpreted and applied, has some limitations and has been used in the media to convey negative connotations of marriage migrants and foreign workers from South-East Asia. Similarly, one must note that the policy of multicultural families is in the vast majority of cases applied only to foreign women who marry a Korean man and not vice-versa. The definition of these marriages also excludes two migrant workers from a non-Korean background. Finally there have been reports of abuse by marriage brokers who have had discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes, although I have been informed that this is not the case anymore with the enactment of a specific law regulating these brokers.

I have also been informed that marriage migrants often lack adequate protection in case of separation or divorce. This is particularly the case when there are no children involved and the residence permit is revoked. I have heard of cases of domestic violence, especially in rural areas and in low-income families where the foreign spouse risks losing their residence permit if she leaves her husband. This puts foreign marriage migrant women in a particularly vulnerable situation, as many are afraid to report domestic violence for fear of losing their residence permit.

I have been made aware of the situation of foreign migrants who come to work to Korea through the Employment Permit System (EPS). This system has been in place since 2007 and has allowed numerous foreign workers to come to Korea access employment opportunities in Korea; similarly it has allowed Korean businesses to recruit foreign workers through a flexible permit system for short and medium term periods which has contributed to the economic growth witnessed in the past years.
I have also been informed that the Government has introduced amendments to the EPS which now make it harder for foreign workers to change employment and which in some cases requires them to have left the country in order to be paid their severance settlement after finishing their employment contract in Korea. Further limitations contained in the EPS system make it almost impossible for a migrant worker recruited under this scheme to be granted permanent or long-term residency, or even to convert to another type of visa as the EPS is limited to a maximum of 4 years and 10 months.

The situation of migrant workers in the agriculture industry requires serious attention from the authorities. Through my meetings with migrant workers in this sector, I have been informed of the difficult working and living conditions these migrants face, working in small farms in isolated areas of the country, in the cold winter and in the hot summer, particularly in the greenhouses. I have also been informed that many of the migrant workers in the agriculture sector are paid less than the legal minimum wage and have to work longer hours than normally permitted, which is not the case of their Korean co-workers. In addition, these migrant workers are often assigned the most difficult and strenuous tasks in comparison to their Korean counterparts. Given their isolated conditions, it is particularly difficult for them to report violations of the Labour Standards Act and to change employment, as they have to go through the Job Centres and provide justification in order to be allowed to change employer.

In my meetings with fishermen of non-Korean origins in Busan, I was informed of their difficult working conditions on board fishing vessels at high seas. Many of them gave accounts of the difficult conditions under which they work. Foreign fishermen are often assigned the most difficult tasks and paid less than their Korean counterparts. In addition, they are not entitled to a share of the catch, which is a requisite for Korean fishermen. Moreover, these fishermen are often subjected to racist and xenophobic verbal and physical abuse by ship owners and captains, as well as by fellow Korean fishermen. Foreign fishermen working in Korean vessels are not regulated by the Labour Standards Acts nor are they under the rules of the Employment Permit System. The fact that they are at high seas for periods up to one month, makes it very difficult for them to report abuse and their particular status does not allow them to change employment through the Job Centres as they are not covered by the provisions of the EPS.

Although I have not been informed of racist or xenophobic discourse and practices at the institutional level, I have been made aware that at the individual level, there have been isolated incidents of private acts of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia. I have been informed of the refusal of a naturalized Korean woman to enter a public bath by the management of the facility, of taxi drivers turning in, to the police, customers who do not look Korean, and of shop attendants expressing derogatory attitudes to foreign customers. Although these incidents may be isolated cases, it is essential for the Government to address the issue of racism and xenophobia through better education and awareness-raising.
I have been informed of the existence of xenophobic groups which advocate the abolition of policy of support for multicultural families and who claim that the multicultural policy enacted by the Government discriminates against Koreans, as they are not entitled to similar social benefits and programs. After verification, I confirmed that no such discrimination exists and that ethnic Koreans are offered the same social benefits under the regular social scheme. It is however important for the Government to dispel these myths and clarify the situation in order to prevent the proliferation of racist and xenophobic movements.

I have been informed that the Republic of Korea has seen an increasing number of requests for asylum which are being processed in a timely manner by the authorities. I have visited an Immigration Reception Centre in Incheon and been made aware of the efforts undertaken by the Korean Government to process claims of refugees and asylum-seekers in a fair, transparent and timely manner. Although the percentage of acceptance remains very low, there are revision and appeal procedures which have been established to ensure a fair hearing and decision by the immigration authorities to those who arrive in Korean and seek asylum. The adoption of a comprehensive Refugee Act in 2013 is a welcome development.

As Korean society becomes more exposed to foreigners and migrant workers living in the country, it is important to continue addressing the issue of racism, xenophobia and discrimination through better education, keeping appropriate statistics especially on discrimination and exclusion, improving domestic legislation especially on employment, as well as ensuring that the media is sensitive and conscious of the responsibility to avoid racist and xenophobic stereotypes and that these are properly addressed and perpetrators punished where appropriate.

In order to offer a better protection to migrant workers, I recommend that the Government ratifies the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Finally, I advocate for the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination Act, as has been recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its Concluding Observations on the Republic of Korea in 2012. Such an Act which would prohibit racial discrimination is essential to address the issues I have mentioned previously, and would allow the appropriate institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission to play a more significant role in receiving complaints from victims, conduct investigation and issue relevant recommendations to the Government which could be followed-up, in a similar manner to the adoption of instruments which prohibit discrimination against women and persons with disabilities.

I will present a more comprehensive report on this visit to the Human Rights Council next year.

I thank you for your kind attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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