Updated: Sep 20
Surrounded by salvaged used-cars parts bound for Syria, Ahmad Khalifa has worked 12 hours a day for three years in one country that does not really want him while longing for another that war has destroyed.
In junkyards in South Korean towns like Yangju, north of Seoul, there are hundreds of young Syrian men like Ahmad Khalifa, who often worked, ate and slept at job sites with no health insurance in pursuit of a dream for a better future.
But now their dream is evaporating, and they are stranded in South Korea, where the authorities have become increasingly wary of Muslim immigrants after a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe.
The Syrians’ bosses, who paid the wages of the workers, no longer need their labor, but these military-age men are too scared to return home. South Korea, however, does not recognize them as refugees, despite appeals from the United Nations refugee agency to embrace more displaced Syrians with wider benefits.
Instead, it is letting 670 Syrians like Ahmad Khalifa stay here only on a so-called humanitarian visa, an annually renewable document that limits their ability to find work and bars them from many benefits open to recognized refugees, like health care and the opportunity to have family members join them.
“Bombs could drop on my wife and two sons in Aleppo anytime,” said Ahmad Khalifa, 29, referring to his hometown in Syria. “I am desperate to get them out and here but just don’t know how.”
South Korea helps more than 1,000 refugees from North Korea who arrive from third countries resettle here annually with subsidies. Last year it joined a resettlement program sponsored by the United Nations refugee agency, and accepted 22 people from Myanmar who were living in refugee camps in Thailand. But South Koreans, proud of their country’s ethnic homogeneity, have not been eager to receive non-Korean asylum seekers.
South Korea recognized its first non-Korean refugee, an Ethiopian, in 2001. So far, it has granted asylum to only 600 non-Korean refugees out of 18,800 applicants.
In 2014, President Park Geun-hye promised that South Korea would pitch in to help resettle millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. By then, hundreds of Syrians had requested asylum in South Korea, most of them junkyard workers who were already here or friends and relatives who joined them after the war broke out. But South Korea’s initially welcoming attitude soon waned.
The government has granted asylum to only three Syrians. The rest were given humanitarian visas.
“The point of the policy is to ensure that these Syrians will return home once the civil war is over, so not to make their life here too comfortable,” said Kim Sung-in, secretary general of Nancen, a refugee advocacy group in Seoul. “It essentially leaves them to fend for themselves.”
Even while South Korea was handing out humanitarian visas at home, its embassies abroad and its airports tightened their screening.
In October 2016, Abdul Wahab Al Mohammad Agha, a Syrian doctoral student in Seoul, took his younger brother to the South Korean Embassy in Turkey to appeal for a visa. The 22-year-old brother had fled their hometown, Raqqa, to avoid having to join the Islamic State’s army. But for the embassy, that was an insufficient reason to give him a visa.
"They made us feel humiliated and small,” said Mohammad Agha, 32.
In a survey of asylum seekers last year, the Korean refugee advocacy group Refuge pNan cited the story of a Syrian woman with children who was denied a visa at the South Korean Embassy in Turkey, and had to travel 14 days through four countries before reuniting with her husband in South Korea.
She requested asylum at the Incheon airport and was admitted. She was lucky.
Twenty-eight Syrians who claimed asylum there after the Paris terrorist attacks in November languished in crowded, windowless rooms at the airport for up to eight months. They were allowed to enter South Korea in July to apply for refugee status, but only after human rights lawyers intervened and publicized their plight.
“They told us to go elsewhere,” said Ahmad, 23, one of the 28, who asked to be identified by his given name only. “But we had nowhere else to go, so we just waited and waited.”
To Korean immigration officials, fleeing war is not sufficient grounds for asylum, said Chae Hyun-young, a legal officer at the United Nations’ refugee office in Seoul. Applicants must also be at risk of persecution. “And they focus on whether the applicant has suffered persecution in the past, rather than whether they would suffer in the future if returned home,” Ms. Chae said.
Ban Jae-yeol, an immigration official at the Incheon airport, said almost all Syrian asylum seekers were allowed to enter the country until the Paris attacks spawned a fear of refugees in South Korea.
In January, the government had to scrap its plan to build a complex to produce and export halal food to Arab countries, after local Christian groups protested that it would help draw Muslims, and terrorism, to South Korea.
The Justice Ministry promised more assistance for the holders of humanitarian visas, including job placement services. But officials were also taken aback by a sudden increase in asylum applicants, from 423 in 2010 to 5,711 last year, mostly from Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and China.
In June, Kim Woo-hyun, the country’s top immigration official, called for a revision of South Korea’s refugee law to deal with economic migrants, including those overstaying their visas, who he said did not qualify as refugees but applied for asylum as a means to extend their stay. Asylum seekers are protected from deportation, and the legal process to screen them can take years, officials said.
Ha Yong-guk, a Justice Ministry official, said four of every 10 people who applied for asylum last year did so while staying in the country illegally.
Anxiety over a slowing domestic economy also led many South Koreans to suspect asylum seekers of stealing jobs, said Shin Heinn, a spokeswoman in Seoul for the United Nations refugee agency.
On a recent Sunday, seven Syrian men gathered at an apartment in Yangju. They all came to South Korea in the past decade to work in junkyards. After the violence in Syria forced an end to shipments of auto parts from South Korea last year, they found themselves out of work.
Local employers balked at hiring them because they held only temporary humanitarian visas. The Syrians all wished to be recognized as refugees, a status that they felt would be more secure and also better understood by local employers.
With few legal resources and dwindling savings, all they could do was worry. Ahmad al-Othman, 29, worries about his younger brother, who was detained on charges of entering South Korea on a fake passport 18 months ago. Ahmad Barro, 27, worries about his wife in Aleppo, who was expecting their third child soon. And while Ahmad Khalifa still has a job, he is worried because back pain has reduced his workload and wages.