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What presidential candidates have to say on S. Korea's migrant issues Updated: 2022-01-24 06:06:44 KST

"This is where migrants to South Korea start a new chapter in their lives.
Many of them coming through those gates hoping to achieve the Korean Dream.
That term mirrors the American Dream, held by migrants to the States hoping for a better and fuller life.”

This man had hoped to achieve the Korean Dream by launching his own business.
He moved here from Myanmarbut instead of becoming a business owner… he has been living as an undocumented immigrant for 22 years.

"After my student visa expired, I tried applying for a work visa, but I couldn't because I had lost my passport. I went to the embassy to apply for a new one, but the review process has been delayed to this day. Mostly because I used to be a democracy activist back home."

There are some 400-thousand undocumented migrants living in Korea, making up roughly 20 percent of the foreign population.
All have different reasons for why they remain unregistered.

Seim said he and his friends have tried everything to gain legal status.

"I haven't been able to visit the hospital for more than 20 years. And I understand that I can't enjoy the privileges of Korea because I can't pay taxes. But I would like to know that there's a chance for people like me to become registered."

He says he could be killed if he returns to Myanmar.
So he tried to seek asylum, but was asked to pay a fine of over 25-thousand dollars.
He said he was more than willing to do so but asked for a bit more flexibility.

"Of course I would like to pay. But I can't. I earn a little over 2-thousand dollars a month. Half I send back home to Myanmar to my family. I'm asking the Korean government to allow me to pay bit by bit, monthly."

Anna, another migrant who has lived in Korea for more than 20 years also asked for more compassion.

"I would like to consider myself as a Korean but I haven't been naturalized yet. But my whole life is here. I met my husband here, we raise our son together. I work at a hospital here. As a Korean I want to bring my sick mother from Russia and take care of her."

Anna is an only child.
She says she's the only one left in her family who can take care of her mother.
To increase the chances of sponsoring her mother with permanent residence, Anna has applied for naturalization.
But even if Anna becomes Korean, there is currently no law that would allow her to sponsor her mother's visa.

"If the country isn't prepared to accept foreigners as their own citizens, international marriage should be banned as a whole. It's not that I regret getting married. I just wish there were more systems for migrants to protect their rights."

Such systems are more established in the United States, which is known for its migrant associations and English-learning programs.

"Immigration policies take up a big part of presidential elections, because the U.S. is the land of immigrants. Though policies vary based on which administration is in power, one thing doesn't change. The voices of migrants are heard. There are so many networks, associations where migrants can share information, file petitions to make change. Our association made Hangeul Day and Kimchi Day in New York."

While local experts say blueprinting exemplary countries like the U.S. definitely helps making immigration policies focused on the migrants living in Korea is even more important.

"We've only started seeing foreigners come to Korea after the 1988 Seoul Olympics when local companies were short on labor. We've always remained a relatively homogeneous society. So we need to launch immigration policies appropriate to Korea's unique atmosphere. For instance, we need the public to first understand that migrants aren't stealing our jobs."

Many migrant workers have helped immensely in manufacturing or agriculture, filling the labor shortage caused by an aging population and low birthrate.
Another expert specializing in counseling and supporting immigrants said more can be done to make the most of migrants' skills.

"We need to give out skilled worker visas to more migrant workers. They're adding on to our national competitiveness, so we should help extend their stay and give them more room to develop relative skillsets."

He said this would only be possible if policies were made in consideration of the rights of each foreign migrant.

"Currently, most immigration policies focus on marriage. But the issue of unregistered teens not being able to go to school, or children born into an international household being the only ones taking what's called a 'multicultural family class'. We need to teach the Korean public not to discriminate and respect all cultures, not just them."

With the presidential election coming up soon, I went to talk to the campaign teams of all four presidential candidates to hear their take on migrant issues.

The ruling Democratic Party's candidate, Lee Jae-myung's campaign team said it is considering making a committee for multicultural families.

"We will create a multicultural committee within our party and hear what problems international families face and then create comprehensive policies. From there, we will also try to expand discussions to include immigration policies."

The camp for main opposition People Power Party's Yoon Suk-yeol said it would consider tweaking the current work visa permit system to allow further economic development.

"Many E9 workers reach higher skills, sufficient skills. But nevertheless they have to leave the country Let such workers stay longer and also facilitate their transition to other statuses like E7 which are given to various kind of skilled workers."

The Sim Sang-jung campaign team from the Justice Party said the country needs to step up its protection of refugees.

"Korea needs to amend its refugee law. Refugees are basically human right violation victims. We need to understand that their lives are at risk. We should ease the standards on who is accepted as a refugee and help them during their stay."

And the campaign team for the minor opposition People's Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo called for a single ministry to manage all immigration policies.
Currently, four ministries, from the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, are mainly responsible for immigrant issues.

"We have the lowest birth rate in the world. In three years' time we will be an aging society. That's why immigration will be Korea's new survival tactic. To do that, our camp believes that there should be a separate immigration office or ministry in charge of relative duties so that we can avoid excessive spending on similar policies launched by different ministries."

As all camps said immigration policies need to be reviewed and strengthened now more than ever.
Because these policies will determine whether migrants can actually achieve the Korean Dream.
Shin Ye-eun, Arirang News."
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