Friday, March 09, 2007

MTU Petition on Yeosu Fire -- older story from Chamsesang

Below, I'm posting a call for solidarity from the MTU, as well as an story from the Korean progressive media about the Yeosu fire and some of the reactions to it from local social movements. Enjoy.

Please take a moment to express your solidarity for the struggle of migrant workers in South Korea by going to this link.

** This petition was initiated by Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union and Nodutdol for Korean Community Development (Queens, NY)

Justice for Yeosu Detention Center Fire Victims and All Migrant Workers

Summary of the Incident

At 4:00 am on February 11 a fire swept through the locked cells of the detention center at the Yeosu Immigration Controls Office, killing 9 detainees and wounding 18 others. Neither the alarm system nor the sprinklers operated when the fire broke out. The detention center staff tried but failed to put out the flames using portable fire extinguishers. Even so, they did not unlock cells to free the detainees. The detainees were forced to breathe in toxic fumes emitted from burning mattresses. These fumes were the cause of most of the deaths and injuries.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. The South Korean government says it suspects arson by one detainee, but has not produced any evidence. Despite this alibi it is not hard to see that the real roots of the tragedy lie elsewhere- in the government’s inhumane policy towards migrant workers.

Background on Migrant Workers in Korea

There are currently roughly 400 thousand migrant workers in South Korea, of whom about 189,000 are undocumented. Migrants in Korea have come under either the “Industrial Trainee System” or the “Employment Permit System,” which place them at specific factories and prohibit them from freely moving to other jobs. Most migrant workers experience inhumane treatment, unsafe working environments and low and unpaid wages. Therefore, many must leave their assigned jobs in search of better conditions, thus becoming undocumented.

The government has responded to this situation with a brutal crackdown. Migrant workers are frequently injured and killed in surprise immigration raids. What is more, they face inhumane conditions and human rights abuses in detention centers like the one in Yeosu, which are worse than prisons. Migrants’ organizations and their supporters believe that the only true way to solve the issue is to stop the crackdown, improve the migrant workers system and legalize all undocumented migrants.

Human Rights Abuses in the Aftermath of the Fire

Injured migrants have been forced to receive treatment while handcuffed to their hospital beds. 28 migrants who were deemed to need no treatment were transferred to Cheong-ju Detention Center. Of these, 17 were forcibly deported without begin given any compensation. The government is also refusing to reveal information about the case to bereaved families and civil society organizations.


In response, MTU has come together with migrant and civil society organizations to form the ‘Joint Committee for Counter Measures to the Tragic Fire at Yeosu Foreigners Detention Center.’ We are working to raise awareness about the incident and its roots and investigating the actual conditions in detention centers around the country. We held a memorial service and mass rally on February 25, which was met by police violence.

Now more than ever, our struggle needs international support. The situation of migrant workers in South Korea must be familiar to all those who come from and/or work in immigrant working-class communities in throughout the world. Please show your solidarity by signing this petition to the South Korean government!


We, the undersigned, believe that to truly resolve this issue and ensure that such an incident does not happen in the future the South Korean government must comply with the following demands:

1. Full disclosure of the real causes and facts of the tragedy, punishment of those responsible, resignation of the Minister of Justice and compensation to the bereaved families.

2. Closure of all detention centers for their inhumane conditions and implementation of steps to revise the system.

3. An end to the brutal crackdowns and legalization of all migrant workers.

4. Institution of a system for the payment of back-wages and protection of migrant workers rights.

We want the South Korean government to know that this incident and the situation of migrant workers in South Korea have come to the attention of people around the world. The international community will not condone the human rights violations perpetrated by the South Korean government against people who work honestly and contribute to the Korean economy. Urgent action is needed.

A Rally Denouncing the Ministry of Justice for the Fire in Yeosu Detention Center
"The Minister Must Resign! Close Down the Detention Centers!"

- Reporter Jeong-pil Byeon
Translated from Chamsesang (

A press conference and a rally on the recent fire in Yeosu Foreigners Detention Center was held in front of the government building in Gwacheon at 1 pm on February 13th. About 100 people, including migrant workers and human right groups, joined the rally.

The protesters expressed the mix of grief and fury that they felt about the incident. They severely criticized the government's wrong policy on migrant workers as the cause of the tragedy.

Speakers on stage also pointed out that it was a murder committed by the government, and that the foreigner detention centers, established for the protection of foreigners, are actually used to imprison them.

"Lots of migrant workers have hung themselves, run into trains, and jumped out of their windows. Now they are burnt to death.

Bong-hee Ju, the representative of the emergency committee said, "The government and the ministry are trying to dodge their responsibility for the tragedy. They just focus on who set the fire to lay the blame on the migrant workers."

Ju mentioned the recent court decision that judged that the migrant workers' trade union is legal. "I thought the situation of migrant workers in Korea could be better. But it was wrong. Still, lots of people hang themselves, run into trains, and jump out of their windows. Now they are burnt to death. We have to stop the tragedies, beginning at once."

"They just sprayed fire extinguishers from the outside of the metal bars and left the people inside."

Hyeon-mo Choi, the representative of Human Rights for Migrant Workers pointed out the horrible condition of migrant workers in the detention centers. "One staff member and two police officers just sprayed fire extinguishers from the outside of the metal bars, and left the people inside. But the fire wasn't put out. While they went to the 1st floor to bring the keys, more people went dying." The Democratic Labor Party members said that they saw three patients handcuffed to their bed frames in the hospital after being saved from the fire. This shows that the Ministry of Justice keeps violating the human rights of migrant workers even after the disaster."

"It's a shame to live in this country." "Even in the U.S., undocumented migrant workers are legalized regularly."

Young-guk Gweon from Lawyers for a Democratic Society criticized the government policy on migrant workers, and pointed out that Korean Immigration even violates their own rules and procedures. When they arrest a person, they have to identify the person first and show an arrest warrant. They are not allowed to sweep people up at random. He demanded the immediate abolition of iron-bar cells, an apology from the President, the resignation of the Minister of Justice and the punishment of the chief of Yeosu Detention Center. He added that the government should stop the crackdown and legalize undocumented migrant workers right now, taking the U.S. policy as an example: "Even under the U.S. policy, which is known to be strict on immigration, migrant workers with a five-year overstay regularly get a chance to be legalized."

Migrants go through a complete strip search. Arson is impossible.

Kajiman, the representative of the Migrant Workers' Trade Union, emphasized that the new Worker Permit System has intensified the crackdown on migrant workers, which is the more fundamental background of the tragedy. He was suspicious of the government investigators' argument of arson. He said that arson is almost impossible inside of the detention center because, before people are put in the detention center, they go through a thorough strip search. They are not even allowed to smoke. "The government and the Minster of Justice are responsible. Don't try to distract people from that. They must apologize to the migrant workers and suggest a fundamental solution."

The participants made it clear that the death was caused by the wrong system and policy on migrant workers. Then they demanded the shutdown of the detention centers, the resignation of the Minister of Justice and the punishment of the staff in charge. They also showed their will to struggle to stop crackdown and legalize all undocumented migrant workers. On February 25th, another large rally on the same issue will be held.

Translation : Radical Language Exchange

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