[Us and Them] Korea's public sector provokes xenophobia

Asia's Tech News Daily

[Us and Them] Korea’s public sector provokes xenophobia
(123rf)Korean authorities’ overzealous approach to the COVID-19 response regarding foreigners has raised concerns of discrimination and fanning xenophobia.

“When a Korean person catches COVID-19, people in the area are notified that someone has been infected. The alert goes right to their phone. When someone who isn‘t Korean catches COVID-19, that same message suddenly is amended to state the nationality of the infected person. Why is it important to know the person’s nationality?” posed Brandon P., an assistant professor at a university outside Jeonju, who wished to use only her last initial.

Noting that someone who is infected with the virus is a foreigner perpetuates the idea that foreigners are the ones spreading COVID-19 recklessly, she said, though the reality is that the proportion of infected foreigners is just a fraction of the total caseload.

“When you’re being turned away from businesses like restaurants, cafes, or hotels, or you‘re being barred from participating in activities like renting picnic baskets or doing tours solely based on the fact that you’re a foreigner, you can see it’s not only frustrating but discriminatory,” she told The Korea Herald.

“Your existence and participation in society can and will be reduced to your answer to the question ‘Are you a foreigner?’”

In September, the city of Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, wrote in its daily COVID-19 notification text message that 25 of the 38 confirmed cases were foreigners.

The Lawyers for a Democratic Society, also known as Minbyun, and the COVID-19 Human Rights Watch Network condemned the local government, saying the text message separating city residents from foreign residents is an obvious case of discrimination as the city’s ordinance regards foreigners there as citizens.

The group added that other cities, such as Yongin, Icheon and Anseong, also all in Gyeonggi Province, that had many foreign residents did not single out the number of foreigners in their virus notifications.

In March, Seoul and Gyeonggi Province came under fire after they singled out expats and ordered all foreign workers to get tested for the coronavirus. If any foreign worker failed to get tested before the designated date, they could be fined up to 2 million won ($1,700).

“The British Embassy has made clear to the national government and to the Seoul and Gyeonggi administrations that we consider these measures are not fair, they are not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective,” British Ambassador Simon Smith said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea also denounced the local governments’ decision, saying that policies to exclude or separate immigrants can lead to negative perceptions and discrimination against them and shake the foundation of social integration, solidarity and trust, leading to race-based hate crimes.

Seoul and Gyeonggi Province withdrew the administrative orders after facing heavy backlash and changed their scheme to recommendations for expats to get tested for the virus.

Despite the criticism, some local governments in the Chungcheong and Gyeongsang provinces recently ordered all foreign workers in the region to get tested for the virus in early October.

In regards to the disaster relief funds that the government has given out on five occasions since the coronavirus outbreak early last year, foreign residents, whether they pay taxes here or not, were largely excluded from the financial support programs.

With the exception of some local governments, most state-level funds were only provided to foreigners who had permanent residency or were married to a Korean.

“Foreign residents are members of Korean society but they are invisible in situations hit by disasters,” former lawmaker Jasmine Lee, a Philippines-born naturalized Korean, said at a press conference held in front of the NHRCK in April 2020.

“We need universal social policies that do not discriminate based on nationality and race.”

Slip of tongue

Aside from the xenophobia stemming from antivirus measures, public figures have also been at the center of controversy for making comments that belittle other nationalities.

In May 2019, Mayor Jung Heon-yul of Iksan, North Jeolla Province, was criticized for using the term “half-breed” at a sports festival for multicultural families held at Wonkwang University.

“Biologically and scientifically speaking, there is something called half-breed vigor. But if society wrongfully leads these smart and pretty children, there could be a problem like the Paris riot,” Jung said. He later released a formal apology, saying he meant that society should work together in raising interracial children.

In June 2019, Hwang Kyo-ahn, then chairman of the Liberty Korea Party, a precursor to the conservative People Power Party, caused public outcry after he said he thinks it is not fair to arithmetically maintain the same level of wages for foreigners because they have not contributed to the country.

“Koreans contribute to our country by paying taxes, so keeping certain wages and giving tax benefits for them is because they have fulfilled their obligations as citizens and will continue to do so in the future,” Hwang said at a meeting with small and medium-sized enterprises in Busan.

He later claimed he was trying to make a point for correcting side effects from an excessive increase of the minimum wage.

The latest slip of tongue by a public figure came from Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general and now one of the leading presidential contenders for the main opposition People Power Party.

“Companies nowadays make a living off of technology. Nothing can be achieved by hands-and-feet labor. India doesn’t even do that anymore. It’s something only a place like Africa still does,” Yoon said during a sit-down with students at Andong University on Sept. 10.

Public sector’s role

The COVID-19 crisis was not the first time that local health authorities issued administrative orders for foreigners to get tested for a virus, according to a migrant workers’ rights activist.

“When AIDS was spreading in the country, a few regions including Cheonan (in South Chungcheong Province) ordered all foreign workers to get tested for HIV. (The coronavirus situation) is an extension of that,” Yang Hae-woo, former director of the Korea Migrant Human Rights Center, told The Korea Herald.

“People who implement government policies should consider the impact of them, but there is not much of that. In fact, Korea is too less sensitive to migration or multiculturalism.”

Yang said even the progressive left-wingers who should expand the basic human rights for all people by implementing policies in favor of foreigners have too much nationalism, adding that she thinks Korean society’s problem with hatred and discrimination of foreigners will worsen over time if nothing is done to change people’s perception.

As the government and public figures have greater influence in how foreigners are viewed or treated, experts stress the importance of their role in preventing xenophobia.

“What individuals say can be a problem, but especially what the government or public figures say has far-reaching power as it provides a type of barometer. That could set a standard for what can be said, so special caution is needed,” said Hong Sung-soo, associate professor of law at Sookmyung Women’s University.

“It may be justified if foreign workers at certain workplaces were required to get tested (for the virus) under the goal of quarantine. But issuing an administrative order for all foreign workers regardless of their workplaces has no justification of quarantine. Such administrative order does nothing but strengthen prejudices toward foreigners altogether, which is inappropriate.”

Ha Shang-eung, a professor of political science at Sogang University, told The Korea Herald that the government should actively and effectively punish discriminatory acts that cross a certain line, including instances when such acts violate the current law.

He added the government should keep in mind that if it thinks of fundamentally eradicating hate speech and prejudice against foreigners, it can be counterproductive.

“As an individual, public figures should officially deny discrimination against all foreigners at the moral level, not at the legal level, and make efforts to prevent the spread of such discrimination,” Ha said.

For other reasons behind the public sector evoking negative feelings toward foreigners, a study points to the government’s deep-rooted use of the word “multicultural” in drafting policies.

“Multicultural policies are mainly limited to migrants from poor countries, such as ‘foreign workers’ and ‘marriage migrant women’ among foreigners residing in Korea. In particular, by assuming these migrants as problem targets or objects that may cause problems in the future, related policies are also dominantly one-and-done,” Kim Mi-young, a researcher at Kyung Hee University’s Research Institute of Global Ryukyu-Okinawa, wrote in the Journal of Multi-Cultural Contents Studies published in April.

Kim noted that if the government wants foreigners to settle in society and live a harmonious life with Koreans, it should put forward more efforts to change the attitude of Koreans.

“Rather than confining the relevant policies under the name of ‘multicultural’ to limit them to certain migrants, (the government) should embrace ‘multiculturalism’ within the policies to eliminate the distinction between migrants,” Kim wrote.

Kim added that policies on migrants should be carried out in the form of understanding differences between foreigners and Koreans without discrimination, saying that xenophobia will not disappear unless the sense of discrimination that comes from classifying foreigners by nationality through the term “multicultural” goes away.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)

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