No longer welcome: migrants face growing racism in South Korea

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Minjae Shin.

Dear friends

I hope you all are staying safe and keeping well.

It has been almost five months since I left Bristol. I am currently in South Korea, my country of origin. Many migrants, including international students, have returned to their home countries unexpectedly since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I was expecting to come back to South Korea to conduct fieldwork for my PhD research project ‘Politics of representations: representations of marriage migrants in South Korea’. But the unprecedented pandemic has changed my fieldwork into an unexpected journey.

I was supposed to participate in the activities of different institutions related to marriage migrants in South Korea. When I arrived at the end of February, however, the situation with the virus was already extremely serious. It was one of the first countries to experience the COVID-19 outbreak, with its first case imported directly from Wuhan, China. In January, at the very first stage of the pandemic, the number of confirmed cases remained in single digits, but the figure soon began to rise sharply. Daily confirmed cases reached a peak of 909 at the end of February.

As the number of cases kept rising, the country raised its COVID-19 alert to the highest level. The South Korean government imposed strict social distancing measures and, as a result, all workplaces were closed and employees had to work from home. Rather than getting into the field and conducting participant observation, therefore, I was sitting at home trying to become, as one person said, a ‘socially distanced but spiritually connected’ researcher. I was also thinking about my foreign friends who live in South Korea as I was worried about how they were doing. The first step of my fieldwork journey, then, was writing emails to these friends, asking how they were coping with the unprecedented situation.

One of my friends, who is a student from China, replied saying, ‘I am extremely scared of racism. South Koreans have been giving me really hateful looks since the COVID-19 outbreak.’ Since the pandemic started, several accounts of racism have been reported – anti-Chinese sentiment, especially, has been on the rise in South Korea. Fear of the outbreak has fuelled ethnic hatred, with Chinese people being seen as ‘carrying the virus’. Restaurants and shops have reportedly been posting signs saying, ‘No Chinese’ or ‘No Chinese allowed’ and refusing to accept Chinese customers. Protests have been held calling for a ban on Chinese people entering South Korea.

An anti-Chinese poster distributed widely on South Korean social media

Disease outbreaks have been used to rationalise xenophobia throughout history (Abbott 2020). And indeed, since the start of COVID-19, anti-Chinese sentiment has been amplified around the world, not just in South Korea. Who encourages such rhetoric as ‘the Chinese carry the virus’ or ‘it’s the Chinese virus’? Racialised rhetoric can be found easily among politicians, many of whom (such as Donald Trump) continue to connect disease with race. As Michael Dryzer discussed at the beginning of the outbreak, and Nandita Sharma more recently in the MMB blog, COVID-19 became heavily politicised very quickly and in the process has been used as strategy for immigration policy.

I received another email from a friend who is a migrant spouse from Singapore. Married to a South Korean national, she expected to feel safe and be given protection by the government during the COVID-19 crisis. However, instead, she has felt very vulnerable and found herself being excluded from South Korean society. In her message she wrote about the issue of distribution of cash relief funds. The South Korean government had begun distributing COVID-19 relief funds of up to £650 per household (as one-off payments). Foreign nationals who have permanent residency and are married to Korean nationals are eligible for the funds. But some of her friends, who are also marriage migrants, could not receive the funds because they were divorced. This made her realise that the citizenship status of migrant spouses is more insecure than she had thought.

I was relieved to receive emails from my foreign friends and know that they were all healthy. However, I kept thinking about their other vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected migrants all over the world in many ways, as outlined in Lorenzo Guadagno’s IOM report. In a global crisis like this, people have to engage with the underlying vulnerabilities of migrants. In particular, the questions of border control, citizenship and citizenship rights have become more important than ever as countries close their borders, restrict people’s movements and, first and foremost, protect their own citizens from the pandemic.

When a crisis like this hits, the human instinct is to go home. But for some migrants, ‘going home’ has not been an option as their countries of origin quickly closed their borders. In South Korea, some have therefore unexpectedly become ‘the undocumented’: unable to leave but not welcome to stay. Many migrants have also faced economic hardship having lost their jobs and remained unemployed due to the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. In many cases, this has been made worse by the increased discrimination and racism against them.

The rate of infection in South Korea is now much lower and I have finally begun the second stage of my fieldwork journey – active participation. The strict social distancing is easing and life appears to be going back to normal. NGOs and activists have been busy confronting the increase in racism by distributing press releases on behalf of migrants and intervening in governmental policies for migrant welfare and rights. For example, they have set up a campaign calling on the government to provide equal financial support (disaster relief funds) to all migrants. Since June, I have worked for one of these NGOs and assisted in distributing private relief funds to migrant households.

The next step of my journey is finally the expected part – my planned fieldwork. I am currently participating in an NGO programme that is similar to my research project and hopefully I will be able to conduct interviews soon. Even though my fieldwork was put on hold for a while, my time in lockdown here has not been wasted. My unexpected journey gave me time and space to think through others’ vulnerabilities in a way that I may not otherwise have done.

Minjae Shin is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

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