JEJU — With its black volcanic rocks that jut out of the sea, Jeju Island is best known as a honeymoon getaway for South Koreans. But it also has a local population of approximately 600,000, nearly all of them Korean. Ahmed Lababidi is a rare exception in that regard. He's not even Asian. He's from Aleppo, in Syria.
It's a typically windy day here, so we go into a nearby cafe to have a chat. The 22-year-old wears glasses, is clean-shaven, and has dark hair that he's growing out. His journey out of Syria, he explains, began in 2012, when war engulfed his hometown. Ahmed and his family managed to escape — to Turkey.
By the end of that year, he and his brother both obtained three-month business visas for South Korea. They told Korean authorities that they were going to buy cars. Ahmed says he originally planned to live in the capital, Seoul, but changed his mind during a trip to Jeju.
"I've been to Seoul a number of times. But whenever I go, I get sick. I get stressed, tired. All I want to do is head back [to Jeju]," he says.
After a few months of living on the island, the young man went to immigration and applied for refugee status. But officials there told him that fleeing war isn't grounds enough for asylum — only escaping persecution is.Lababidi recalls the conversation he had with the immigration agent:
"Of course the government is after me," he told the agent.
"How do you know that? Gives us proof and then we'll give you refugee status," the agent said.
"How can I prove that? I had some activities on Facebook, anti-government stuff. They know my name," Ahmed replied.
The immigration authorities decided in the end to issue him a humanitarian visa, which allows him to stay in Korea but is a lot different, Ahmed explains, than refugee status. "No healthcare. No housing. No salary." He doesn't know how long he can keep the visa, nor how many times he can re-apply.
Jeju seashore — Photo: Yoo Chung
Ahmed is not alone. As of late 2015, approximately 850 other Syrians had applied for refugee status in South Korea. So far only three people have had their request granted.
An immigration official I spoke with insists that all applicants are treated fairly. But some human rights activists say there's a negative bias towards refugees from countries other than North Korea, especially toward people coming from Muslim countries.
Chung Shin-Young, an immigration lawyer, says Muslim asylum seekers are generally treated with suspicion in South Korea. "If you look at Korea, you see it's a very homogenous society. It's really hard for people here to accept diversity," she says.
Shin-Yung says that in some cases, just like in Europe or North America, some South Korean politicians, media and law enforcement try to make the link between Syrian refugees and terrorism. She shares an example of what police reportedly told Muslim migrants in one city here.
"The police approached a group of Muslims and asked them to shave their beards. 'You look like terrorists,' they said. They've even gone into Mosques just to look for people who look like terrorists," the immigration lawyer says.
Ahmed says he's happy with his life on Jeju Island, and that he's made a lot of friends through his job waiting tables at a local Indian restaurant. But he admits that police did question him following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year. "I felt bad that they came to me, that they thought I was terrorist. But later I understood it was just something they had to do," he says.
The young Syrian says he hopes South Korean immigration will reconsider his refugee application. There's also a chance he could end up in Europe if his parents, who are still in Turkey, get refugee status there. His preference, however, would be to bring the family to Jeju Island.
"Wherever I go on Jeju, I think about them," he says. "They can't see the places I'm seeing. They don't know what it feels like to be here. But maybe later."