Ann Marie Campbell, Refugee COmmissioner chimes in

Anne Mary Campbell, the globetrotting United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Seoul seems to always appear during or just before massive refugee crises.

Before working for the United Nations, Campbell pulled four years for a Non-Government Organization (NGO) in Thailand, just as 160,000 refugees were fleeing Pol Pot’s killing fields in Kampuchea (Cambodia).  Her work there gave her the experience needed to be placed in Kenya, just as 260,000 refugees poured in from Somalia, and in Mazur, Afghanistan do deal with the uncountable thousands internally displaced Afghans from 2004 to 2007.

What then could be the challenge for such expertise here in the Republic of Korea, which, of its 2500 known applications for refugee status, has only granted 175 people the papers they need to work and live here as refugee asylees?

Rather than meeting the food, shelter, clothing, medical and educational needs of refugees in tent cities, Campbell’s herculean task will be to achieve legislation that formalizes how refugees are accepted in Korea, and, for now, to at least find a way for those seeking refugee status, to be able to do so at a port-of-entry with or without proper paperwork.

Her May 22 GIC Talk laid out the definition of refugee, the immediate plight of 32 million refugees around the world, and the need for private funding of the UNHCR’s $2 billion annual budget.

Before the talk the GN chatted with Campbell and her assistant, Park Yoo Kyoung, the UNHCR Face-To-Face Fundraising Coordinator in Seoul.

“The legislative process is slow in Seoul, but if a refugee act can be passed, we would then work to strengthen the law.  In East Asia, only Japan and South Korea have refugee asylum systems,” Campbell said.  “North Koreans are not considered refugees here because they are given citizenship and assistance with many details of their lives once they arrive.  A sign of the importance of foreigners was last year’s Together Day in Seoul in which President Lee spoke about the important roles foreigners play in Korea.”

Since guest workers are such a large part of the economy, it is an anomaly that only 3.5% of those seeking asylum have been granted working papers.  South Korea’s prosperity relies on foreigners, but an onslaught of refugees may well be more than the export-driven economy here could handle.

GN:  How is the drive to find more private donors to help asylum seekers going in the R.O.K.?

Campbell: It is a brand new initiative, so we’re breaking even with money invested, but the 20-30-year-old age group is responding well.

GN: How can English-speaking readers get involved?

Campbell: You can find us at .  Among the refugees here, most come from Asia.  For African refugees, they are on their own in a culture that is very different.  For Asians it is much easier.

GN: In March the first recognized refugee ever, a man from Ethiopia, was given citizenship in the ROK. Is this a trend, or an exception?

Campbell:  Our goal is to try to assist refugees as much as we can.  First we’re working on expedited asylum claims, and looking forward to a refugee reception center that is expected to open in 2012.  The Ministry of Justice, UNHCR and National Commission for Human Rights have met with pro bono lawyers representing refugees back when I was in Kenya.  This kind of on-the-spot discussion is good.  More can happen here, but the Ministry of Justice is already meeting more often with lawyers assisting refugees here.

Campbell’s talk began with an informative 15-minute movie about refugees in Africa and Columbia, both often created by ongoing civil wars.  In Africa 5 million have died from war recently, two out of three being women.  At its worst, 1000 people per day were dying from wars, notoriously in Rwanda, Sudan and Somalia, but elsewhere as well. The Columbian situation closely mirrors that in Seoul, where refugees are harder to assist, since they are in cities, thus spread out, and melding into large populations.

“In Seoul asylum-seekers do not get assistance unless the adjudication process takes over a year.  During this time, they do not have the right to work.  In 1992 the ROK signed the refugee convention, and received its first asylum seeker in 2001.  Many Asian countries never signed the covenant,” Campbell informed.  “There are as many as five million Columbian refugees living in Ecuador.  Eighty percent go to cities to gain anonymity, as they fear reprisals.  Most earn one dollar per day, but, the UNHCR has issued three million refugee cards there which gives the children a chance to be schooled.  In the barrios (impoverished neighborhoods) 60-70% of the children are displaced.”

The movie also noted that many Koreans were displaced and moved toward Busan in the Korean War.  Pictures of wind-driven snowy treks in the winter showed hundreds of Koreans walking toward Busan in the South, and lined up to take trains to Busan from Seoul.

“The will to live is strong during war, but the refugee asylum procedures are harder now than in the post World War II era,” Campbell said.  “The UNHCR assists a government when invited to do so.  Since World War II, the US and Russia have had a lot of proxy wars, so refugees from the cold war, in addition to Rwanda, Columbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and many other places are internally displaced.  You can’t be a refugee in your own country.”

This makes it hard for the UNHCR to help everyone, as certain criteria must be met before the worst atrocities can be handled.  Among the most heinous examples:  “In Rwanda one million or more were killed and the international community knew the slaughter was coming, but no one did anything until an outsider Tutu came in with his own army,” Campbell said.  “In 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnia, a UN “Safe Haven” was set up and protected by 400 Dutch UNPROFOR soldiers, who could not prevent the mass murder of over 8000 Bosnian Muslims.  In 1996, Albanians in Kosovo were also victims of genocidal Serbs, but the international community’s reaction, a military intervention by NATO, not the UN,  made matters worse until the Balkan wars finally ended.  In 2000 a poorly planned military intervention in Somalia was too heavy.  The result was more bloodshed.   So who has responsibility to protect?  1) the government of the county involved 2) the head of State of the country involved and then 3) the international community.  But the level of atrocities must rise above human rights violations before international military interventions should be used,” Campbell suggested.

“At the 2007 World Summit, 150 heads-of-state agreed that a human rights problem is not enough to warrant intervention,” she continued.  “It must be atrocities, and even then, it must be at a Rwandan level before the intervention could be a military one.

“I have been in the middle of many massive refugee situations.  The UNHCR does not want to see anyone pushed back into harm’s way.  Every asylum seeker during a war must be given due process and a proper interview,” the Irish native Campbell said in what remains a distinct Irish accent.

Many seeking asylum move due to draught, floods, and economic conditions, Campbell pointed out.  “If we want to have control over the movement of people, developed countries must work to help economies grow so people do not need to flee.  Those with questions after the meeting asked about what could happen with global climate change, and natural disasters, and how to help those who are forced to move for reasons other than war.

“The UNHCR has 200 offices and a staff of 6500.  Our budget is $2 Billion per year and our mandate says we must raise funds from private donations.  The quickest way to help is to make donations, and the place you can start is by looking at” Campbell said.

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