Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yet another senseless death

From today's JoongAng Ilbo:

A lonely death underscores sad migrants¨ plight
Immigration officials sympathize but say laws must be followed
February 11, 2008




A lonely death underscores sad migrants¨ plight
Immigration officials sympathize but say laws must be followed
February 11, 2008

Migrant workers stage a rally to protest a recent crackdown on illegal workers on Jan. 20 in Jongno, central Seoul. Advocates say Korea¨s 223,000 illegal workers often take jobs no one else wants. [NEWSIS]
^For the first time in eight years, I saw my mom. She was lying cold on a slab at a morgue, ̄ said Oh Jeong-hwa at a mourning altar for her mother at Seoul National University Hospital last week.
Oh¨s mother, Kwon Bong-ok, died on Jan. 15 after falling from the 8th floor of a motel in Seoul where she was working as an illegal immigrant. She had been dangling from the window ledge by her fingers to hide from South Korean immigration officers hunting for illegals.
The 51-year-old ethnic Korean from China came to Seoul in 1999 to earn money to pay off a family debt and provide college tuition for Oh. ^My mother called me the day before she died and told me that she would come back to China soon. She said she missed me so much, ̄ Oh said.
With the death of another migrant worker during an enforcement crackdown, the Korean Immigration Service has been facing criticism for its policies. Civic groups held a street rally last month to protest against the service¨s ^merciless ̄ inspection of workers.
Oh demanded that the service make an official apology for driving her mother into a corner. ^How scared she must have been, ̄ Oh lamented.
^During past immigration inspections, several illegal aliens died after falling from buildings; some even committed suicide because they could not stand the pressure, ̄ said Kim Hae-seong, the chairman of the Korea Migrants¨ Center, a support group.
The immigration service, however, says that sentiment is not the way to handle the issue of illegal immigration. With civic groups and some media emphasizing the hardships faced by illegal aliens, they neglect the fact that local laws are being violated and the service¨s enforcement efforts are hindered, immigration officials say. ^We feel really sorry for her loss, ̄ said Kim Young-geun, an official at the service. ^Still, the inspection was conducted in accordance with the law and we cannot apologize for that. ̄
According to the Justice Ministry, there were an estimated 223,000 illegal aliens in the country as of last year. About 22,000 illegal migrants were caught and deported last year, down from 23,000 in 2006, according to the service.
The risks of combating illegal immigration, say officials, run both ways. On Jan. 30, an immigration officer was stabbed in the thigh by a Bangladeshi illegal migrant who was trying to flee an inspection raid. Twenty immigration officers were injured last year, compared to six during similar enforcement drives in 2004, according to the service.
^Because the media and civic groups protect illegal workers¨ rights, some illegals do not respect the officers¨ authority and are not afraid of attacking them, ̄ said another official, who refused to be named.
According to police, Kwon locked herself in a room after she found out an inspection was underway at the motel in Jongno where she was working as a maid. When the officers opened the door after about 10 minutes, she had already fallen to her death eight floors below.
^I went to the motel and I saw her fingerprints on the window sill. Her cell phone, the one she called me on the day before, was broken in half, ̄ said Oh.
The immigration service¨s Kim claimed it was an unfortunate accident and that Kwon was likely trying to escape from the eighth floor to a seventh-floor window. ^The gap between the two floors was just 1.5 meters (4.9 feet), ̄ he said. ^We agree with her family that she did not commit suicide. We think something went wrong while she was trying to go down. ̄
Oh, who came to Seoul on Jan. 20 after learning of her mother¨s death, delayed the funeral until Feb. 5. ^I was waiting for an apology from the inspection officers. But I decided to hold a funeral because I could not make her stay in a cold morgue during the Lunar New Year, ̄ said Oh.
The director of the immigration service, Hwang Taek-hwan, attended the funeral but no official apology was made.
Migrant Trade Unions, a labor union of migrant workers in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, also has been holding daily protests since Dec. 13 after three Nepalese, who had been executive members of the union, were deported. The union and the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions argue that the service targeted union members.
^They had lived here illegally for more than a decade. One forged his passport when he entered the country. It was an absolutely just decision [to deport them], ̄ said the service¨s Kim.
The plight of the migrants, however, is understandable, said the migrant center¨s Kim. ^Many paid a lump sum to a broker to come to Korea. They try to stay until at least they can pay back their debts, ̄ he explained.
Soon Goon-saeng, a 40-year-old Chinese man, was one such worker. On Nov. 25, he was confronted by immigration officers as he was leaving a church service. He jumped from a third floor rooftop to the ground. He suffered two broken ankles and has been through two operations.
^I paid 10 million won ($10,619) to a broker to come to Korea. If I return to China without paying back the debt, I will be harassed everyday, ̄ said Soon, who has been hospitalized at a hospital run by the Migrant Workers¨ Center.
The center¨s Chairman Kim said the government should embrace illegal migrant workers by introducing a system in which they can go back to their country and return here with a valid visa. There is demand for their services and they do work that many Koreans no longer want to do, he said.
^Most illegal migrant workers worked here for years before their visa expired. I think it would be waste for the government to force such experienced workers to leave the country, ̄ said Kim.
Currently, foreign migrant workers are allowed to work under an employment permit system, which went into effect in 2004. Under the system, a worker can stay for up to three years and renew the visa for another three years the employee agrees.
For Oh, it is too late to worry about reforming a system that she believes is responsible for her mother¨s death. ^I just hope there will be no one who suffers like my mother any more, ̄ said Oh, sitting at the mourning altar alone.

Park Yeon-soo contributed to this article.

By Kim Soe-jung Staff Reporter [soejung@joongang.co.kr]

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