The Ministry of Justice must immediately accept the NHRCK recommendations on the false refugee interview cases, and actively provide relief for victims of falsified refugee status determinations.

In November 2014, the Ministry of Justice implemented an “accelerated refugee screening system” citing significant delays and case load in RSD procedures. Due to further delays in RSD procedures, an internal guideline for expanding accelerated screening procedures was ordered by the Ministry and a TF to this end was established in September 2015. As a result, the subjects of the accelerated procedures were classified according to arbitrary criteria that had no grounds under the Refugee Act, for whom the fact-finding procedure was omitted, the refugee interview was conducted within only an hour, and the screening procedure was completed within 7 days (maximum of 14 days). For several years, the RSD procedure was conducted in a hasty and careless manner. As a result, serious violations of human rights have occurred, including fabrication of numerous interview records. Five victims of falsified RSD and human rights NGOs filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) on July 18th, 2018. The NHRCK issued a recommendation on October 15, 2020, which found that the responsibility for the interview cases lies not only with the individual examiner, but also with the overall policies of the Ministry of Justice.

The NHRCK’s decision is as follows. The Ministry of Justice conducted the review of refugee applicants with the assumption that they will “abuse refugee claims for economic reasons”. The Ministry has 1) violated the duty to faithfully conduct refugee interviews, 2) violated the obligation to confirm the contents of the refugee interview document with the refugee applicant, and therefore 3) is responsible for procedural failures of the RSD. “The accelerated refugee screening system” was introduced with the objective of including 40% of all applicants, but was actually applied to approx. 70% of applicants at the Seoul Immigration Office in 2016. Especially, 94.4% of refugee applicants with Egyptian nationality were subjected to this “accelerated refugee screening system” in 2016. This has resulted in serious violations of human rights.

According to the fact-finding investigation by the NHRCK, the officers responsible for the accelerated review were instructed to carry out 44 refugee reviews every month, an impossible goal to fulfill. The headquarters ordered the officers to conduct the refugee interview as shortly and as simply as possible. Failure to meet the required number of monthly reviews resulted in refugee officers being ordered to write a report explaining their failures. Moreover, in April 2015, lawyers fulfilling their mandatory 2 years of military service, who did not hold legal qualifications required for the refugee status screening were now required to conduct RSD screening. There were only four refugee examiners in the whole Ministry who were responsible for supervising and ensuring objective and professional screening, and the number of refugee screening cases they conducted were used as a criteria evaluate their performance.

According to the “Measures on the Innovation of Refugee Status Determination Procedure Implemented through Analysis of the Causes of Delay” (Refugee Office, MOJ, doc number 5677), applicants who were subject to the accelerated refugee status determination procedure included those who are reapplying for refugee status, those who have applied for refugee status just before the expiration of their stay period after staying for more than a year, and those who have applied for refugee status claiming the succession of the tribe or persecution by cult members. In particular, if number of refugee applications from a certain country increased steeply when the MOJ deemed the country had with no particular reasons of persecution, refugee applicants from that country would be categorized as ‘abusive claims’ and subject accelerated procedures. In most cases, these criteria were applied at the beginning of the RSD process, resulting in a helter-skelter process unprecedented in the world.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice implemented a re-determination policy in February, 2020 as a measure to recover the victims’ damage, giving all refugee applicants who had undergone an Arabic refugee review from September 2015 to July 2018 an opportunity to reapply for refugee status. However, according to the NHRCK’s investigations, not only Arabic-speaking applicants but all refugee claimants subjected to the accelerated screening are highly susceptible to violations of human rights, and therefore it is necessary to immediately implement measures to recover the damages of all refugee applicants. It was estimated that there would be about 2,000 re-applicants benefitting from the re-determination policy. However, there were only 701 re-applicants as of August 24th, and not a single interview had taken place so far. Therefore, the Ministry of Justice needs to take more active steps to restore victims’ rights.

The Ministry of Justice have not given clear position on the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice in ordering or causing falsified refugee interviews, including by issuing the guidelines of the accelerated review, despite the fact that human rights NGOs have repeatedly raised this issue over the past four years. Since then, as the facts slowly emerged through lawsuits and the media, the Ministry of Justice has tried to downsize the problem by ex officio cancelling few non-recognition decisions. In 2019, in response to the human rights NGOs and the Korean Bar Association’s inquiry, the Ministry said that “We would request severe disciplinary action from the Central Disciplinary Committee though internal inspection of the officers who were involved.” However, only mild disciplinary action has been taken against two officers since then, and the Ministry has not yet provided a clear explanation of its internal investigation.

Through this decision, the NHRCK has clarified that the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the falsified refugee interviews, and that this gross human rights violations were not caused only by a few examiners and interpreters. The Ministry of Justice has dismissed its obligation to faithfully implement the Refugee Convention, and it has established the accelerated review policy with prejudiced and distorted views assuming that all refugee applicants abuse the RSD procedures. In particular, the majority of refugee applicants from the Arabic countries such as Egypt were violated of their human rights, through targeted accelerated screening and officers being ordered to process unrealistic number of interviews. Therefore, the NHRCK found that serious human rights violations occurred in the MOJ’s process of establishing and implementing RSD policies.

We welcome the decision of the NHRCK and once again demand the Ministry of Justice for the following:

1. The Minister of Justice must take responsibility for this gross violation of human rights, and immediately and fully accept the National Human Rights Commission of Korea’s recommendations on the case of falsified refugee interviews;

2. The Ministry of Justice must clearly acknowledge its responsibility and position by transparently disclosing the details and results of its internal investigations;

3. The Ministry of Justice should expand the subject of re-determination policy to all victims of the accelerated procedures, and make official apology to the victims. In addition, the Ministry must actively implement relief measures such as damage compensation to the victims; and

4. The Ministry of Justice should disclose its guidelines for RSD screening, guarantee the rights of refugee applicants, and immediately stop its careless and rushed RSD screening.

October 15, 2020

Categories: Statement