SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of desperate Yemenis fleeing civil war — more than 550 — arrived on the South Korean island of Jeju and applied for asylum between January and May. In response, more than half a million South Koreans have petitioned President Moon Jae-in to turn away all refugees. Online platforms have become grounds for refugee-bashing. An actual anti-refugee demonstration took place on Saturday in downtown Seoul.
South Korea has long been intolerant of outsiders, but the outrage triggered by this small number of Yemenis arriving on our shores shows how deep xenophobia runs here. For all of South Korea’s success as a democracy and as a thriving economy, compassion and humanitarian instincts are in short supply. And the government bears much of the blame for fostering this selfish mind-set.
As of 2016, slightly more than two million foreigners were living legally in this country. Even when an estimated 210,000 undocumented migrants are counted, foreigners account for only around 4 percent of the total population of about 51 million.
And the number of refugees is negligible. South Korea has accepted only 2.5 percent of all asylum seekers it has screened since 1994 (not counting North Korean defectors), according to Human Rights Watch.
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