By Kim Se-jeong
Born in 2001 in Korea, Seo graduated from a high school in February but couldn't go to university because she wasn't eligible to take the annual scholastic aptitude test because of her illegal status.
Both her parents are undocumented immigrants.
"I feel discouraged to see my friends going on to universities but not me. I feel like giving up all the hope," said Seo who refused to disclose her identity and the country of her parents' origin.
Getting a job is not an option for her because she doesn't have a social identification number and is afraid of being deported.
"I am under constant fear that I can be deported," she said, adding Korea is her home country and she'd like to stay where she can speak the language and knows the culture.
See's story is not common but not unheard of
The Ministry of Justice estimates up to 20,000 students across Korea are facing deportation when they graduate high school.
In many cases, their parents arrived in Korea under E-9 foreign worker visas or marriage visas but later became undocumented.
Before, 2012, high school students without legal status were subject to deportation. From 2012, the government delayed the deportation for three years.
Although they can stay to study, these children don't have full access to education.
Since they don't have an ID number, they are often denied access to school activities. For example, they can't join their peers on field trips if these involve air travel. In the COVID-19 pandemic, many classes are conducted online, but they can't watch the lectures, again because of the lack of an ID number.
Outside school, they are denied all other social services.
Denied access to medical treatment has the worst consequences. In 2018, a 10-year-old boy died after getting leukemia. His undocumented parents from China didn't have national medical insurance and couldn't afford to pay for treatment that cost more than 100 million won.
"The system in Korea treats these children as if they don't deserve to be alive," said Seok Won-jeong from Seongdong Global Migrant Center. "Society tells them: 'you aren't supposed to be here, but we let you stay until you finish high school. So please be thankful.' This is not right. The government says they have done enough. But it is the duty of adults and the government to protect all children in their jurisdiction."
Seok also said: "I am not advocating granting them Korean citizenship or permanent residence. Korea is all these children know and if we deny them the bare minimum support, their lives will be completely ruined. No one would like to see that happening. It's common sense to give them legal status to stay for a while so that they can grow up healthy."
She added: "Regardless of who the parents are, children should have access to basic services. Korea signed an international agreement but is refusing to comply with it."
The government ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. According to the convention, "Every child has the inherent right to life," and the state "shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child," regardless of the child's legal status.
In 2017, the UN Committee on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights recommended the government to allow all children regardless of the legal status of their parents to be registered in the administrative system.
In May this year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Korea also recommended the justice ministry to act for these children.
"For the interest of these children, we recommend the ministry come up with measures that would give them some form of legal status to stay in Korea," the NHRC said, adding "until the measure is ready, we recommend the ministry mobilize all possible means to allow them to stay in Korea."
Under the current law, children can challenge the deportation decision and ask the ministry to reevaluate their cases, but no applicant has won the right to stay through this process.
"It's clear that deporting these children who developed their identities in Korean society can have a negative impact on their personal lives. It is against Korea's Constitution to deport them against their wishes in this situation," the NHRC said.
The ministry couldn't be reached for comment.
"The ministry has been quiet to date and so I hope that it is preparing something," Seok said.