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International relations

Yemeni refugees in South Korea face fake news and friction

People fleeing civil war mix uncomfortably with locals on resort island of Jeju

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea -- Yemeni refugees who have come to this resort island after fleeing civil war at home face difficulty fitting in with local society, as anti-refugee fake news and cultural differences fuel acrimony.

Yemen's civil war has raged since 2015. Last year, 131 Yemenis sought asylum in South Korea, but this year, the figure reached 552 as of May, according to the South Korean Ministry of Justice.

"We just tried to escape war and massacre," said one 23-year-old Yemeni man. Many Yemeni refugees are disheartened and wounded by misinformation spreading through South Korea, he added.

The man, who left his hometown of Ibb as fighting worsened there, arrived in early May at Jeju, a temperate island off South Korea's southern coast. Before that, he had stayed in Malaysia, whose official religion of Islam links it to majority-Muslim Yemen. But he was barred from finding employment there, and faced discrimination against Arabs. He was able to live for a year on money sent from home, but "I heard that South Korea was taking in refugees, and decided to come to Jeju," he said. "I had nowhere else to go."

The surge in Yemeni refugees owes in large part to the establishment of direct flights from Malaysia to Jeju in December 2017. In an effort to draw tourists, the island lets people from many countries stay without a visa for up to 30 days. But last month, the South Korean government added Yemen to the dozen or so exceptions.

Most Yemeni exiles in Jeju are men, because they are much more likely to be sent to the battlefield. They are generally not fleeing poverty and are decently dressed, but that very fact has led some to call them "fake refugees," as they differ from the unkempt image many associate with the term.

Unsubstantiated rumors on the internet are also spreading anxiety. Some point to alleged increases in sexual assault in Europe after parts of the bloc began accepting more refugees, while others claim crime by foreigners is on the rise in South Korea.

"Mothers with daughters are warning them not to go out alone," said one woman running a cafe in Jeju. "I'm worried there might be more crime."

The government in Seoul has been trying to control the situation. Besides ending visa-free entry to Jeju for Yemenis, in April it restricted asylum seekers' ability to travel from the island to other parts of the country.

Tension with Jeju locals is deepening. The South Korean government has carved out an exception letting Yemeni refugees work before the regular waiting period of six months after their asylum request has ended, finding them hard-labor jobs many locals avoid -- such as on fishing boats, or at breeding farms and factory floors.

But those who do not speak Korean cannot understand their employers' instructions, and tend to be inefficient at their jobs. On fishing boats, meals provided for workers are often raw fish, which most Yemenis are not used to eating.

One Yemeni man employed at an eatery was forced to work on his feet from morning until night, then sleep in the kitchen.

"I was shouted at," he said. "I was not treated as a human being. It was unbearable."

Employers are frustrated as well. Sometimes Yemenis stop working to pray, and bosses' unfamiliarity with the language can make it appear as if they are "loitering, not working seriously." The building unhappiness on both sides makes it hard for the refugees to settle into jobs.

One low-priced tourist hotel has become something of a sanctuary for Yemeni refugees, who learn of it by word of mouth and come live there together. They pitch in about 2,000 won -- or just under $2 -- per day for food and cook together in the kitchen, which guests are allowed to use.

Some South Koreans are supportive. "There are people who wire [the refugees] money, buy them food, or invite them to stay in an open room in their house," said the hotel's chief, and Christian and other organizations also work to offer support. But such efforts tend to be drowned out by anti-refugee voices.

"I just want the civil war to end" in Yemen, said the 23-year-old man from Ibb. "Then I can go back and sleep peacefully."

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