Saturday, May 14, 2005

Side-Effects of the Crackdown On Migrants

At the end of last year, the Korean government announced that it was going to (yet again) crack down on illegal immigrants who overstayed their visas, as many would be due to expire in the first half of the new year. The Korea Times just posted an article about the most recent crackdown on migrant workers and its effect on the local economy in Ansan, an industrial city just southwest of Seoul which once had a foreign population 30,000 strong. I remember being at a rally in Ansan in late 2003, in the midst of a severe crackdown on migrants. Few migrant workers were willing to come out and demonstrate in such a repressive atmosphere (and in the presence of a dozen buses full of riot police), but a number of local storeowners took to the stage and declared their support for the migrant workers, who were obviously their core customers.

It was at this rally in Ansan that Anwar Hossain , who was just arrested last night (and who is pictured in the following link), and Samar Thapa, who was deported last year, shaved their heads to protest the EPS and the crackdown that began in November 2003.

Here's the Korea Times article:

Streets Empty As Hunt for Illegal Foreigners Continues

ANSAN (Yonhap) - The downtown district of this bustling industrial city just 40 km southwest of Seoul is haunted by an eerie silence, with stores closed, for-lease signs prominent and few passersby.

Wongok-dong, a suburb of mostly foreign migrant workers whose cosmopolitan culture once had it praised as a ``town without borders,’’ is rapidly becoming known as a ghost town.

As the South Korean government's current campaign against illegal immigrant workers continues, Wongok-dong is losing much of its 30,000-strong population.

Locals say almost half of the foreign citizens once resident there have left since the government crackdown started in September.

``They come by in cars at any time and arrest people walking on the streets,’’ said Yun Yeong-cheol, who runs a grocery store in Wongok-dong, referring to officials from the Ministry of Justice

in charge of implementing the government's policy to catch illegal immigrant workers.

Many of his regular customers, mostly from China and Russia, have returned home, and his sales have dropped by almost 40 percent.

``Here, 90 percent of the people hanging around are foreigners. Just grab one of them, and it'll most likely be an illegal alien. It's that easy,’’ he said.

On the afternoon this reporter visited, an eerie tension permeated the neighborhood as a group of men appeared from a van, dispersed themselves about the streets and began demanding pedestrians to show their identification cards.

``The town is empty, it feels chilly. The streets were once crowded with people, but now everything has disappeared,’’ said Li Gil-bok, an ethnic Korean born in China who later immigrated to Korea.

Li runs an agency for Chinese workers in Korea, the Korea-China Friendship Association, which campaigns on behalf of its members for due wages or retirement payouts from employers unwilling to shell out.

Offering translation, documentation and counseling services, Li struggles to get by on an income from membership fees of 5,000 won ($5) a month.

Membership of the association has dropped in recent months from 1,200 to about 400.

``Now is the worst time of paralysis for everyone. Fish need to live in water, and if there's no water, they die,’’ Li said.

In the good times before the crackdown began, restaurants, grocery stores and international calling card vendors in Wongok-dong enjoyed strong business well into the night, as the streets filled with the boisterous sounds of languages from around the world.

Along with the vibrancy, so has gone the source of income for those who remain. Almost every other restaurant in the area has ``For Lease’’ scrawled forlornly on a piece of paper stuck to the inside of its front window, with contact numbers written below.

As part of its policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants, the Ministry of Justice has established a voluntary amnesty period for illegal immigrant workers who are ethnic Koreans from China and Russia, allowing them to re-enter legally after spending a year away.

The voluntary registration period that started in March has expedited the exodus of ethnic-Korean Chinese and Russian nationals from Wongok-dong.

Kim Yang-su, the ministry official in charge of managing the illegal immigrant worker problem, said he understands that local businesses are suffering as a result of the crackdown, but remains adamant it needs to continue for the greater good of the country.

An average 400 to 500 people are leaving the country every day under the new registration system implemented in March, he said, with 22,000 people having departed the country so far.

``There is a system allowing for foreigners to be legally employed here, but there are too many who arrive through illegal ways. We hope that they may leave voluntarily and not insist on staying here just because of their personal problems,’’ Kim said.

For Nelson Nwokejiobi, who came to Korea in 2001 after his business in Nigeria collapsed, the government's position is unrealistic because the chances are very slim that his government would ever allow him to receive another visa.

Many of his compatriots were forced to leave with no prospect of later returning.

``I'm asking, begging, the Korean government to reconsider,’’ said Nwokejiobi, whose work permit is to expire in less than two years.

``You see, a lot of us Nigerians have problems (in our home country) and that's why we come to Korea,’’ he said.

Nwokejiobi gets by on the wages he earns at a factory job in Ansan making the packaging that television sets are sold in. His night shift starts at 7 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. the following morning, but often stretches to 24 hours when demand calls for it.

``I'm after money. I don't have money. I'm really enjoying my work,’’ he said.

05-13-2005 17:50

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