|Members of Seoul city's committee of foreign residents pose for a photo during a meeting in December last year/ Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government|
Calls growing to accept immigrants as members of society
By Kim Se-jeong
Khalilzade Nihat, an Azerbaijan national and Seoul resident, is a member of a committee run by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, in which foreign residents discuss policies relating to them and make recommendations.
At an upcoming meeting slated for July 17, Nihat is planning to recommend that the Ministry of Justice run a public campaign promoting the acceptance of foreign nationals as members of society.
The committee of 43 foreign residents was founded in 2016 by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. "As the number of foreign residents grows in Seoul, it is becoming more important for the city to hear their voices," said a Seoul city official responsible for the committee's affairs who wished to remain anonymous.
According to the Ministry of Interior and Safety, the number of foreign residents in Seoul grew from 260,019 in 2008 to 446,473 in 2018.
Nationwide, the number more than doubled from 891,341 to 2,054,621. The largest number of foreign residents in Korea comes from China, followed by those from other Asian countries, who often find jobs in the manufacturing and agriculture sectors.
The committee members meet 18 times a year, to discuss existing policies, recommend revisions or propose new policies.
When they present new policy recommendations, twice a year, officials from the city government as well as the Ministry of Justice, the Immigration Office and other relevant government bodies are invited. After the meeting, these are compiled and sent to the relevant government bodies as official recommendations.
Some recommendations have been accepted.
In March last year, the Ministry of Justice changed the way names were written on alien registration cards, allowing the names to be written in both English and Korean. The Korean name option is currently only available for Chinese nationals but it is a change that has been welcomed by committee participants.
"I wasn't a member long enough to see how it happened from the beginning but it was certainly exciting when I heard the news," said Nihat.
Seoul isn't alone in listening to foreign residents.
Last month, the city of Gwangju announced the launching of a committee consisting of 20 foreign residents who would represent the voices of the 23,000 foreign nationals living in the city. The cities of Ansan in Gyeonggi Province and Daegu, and Jeju Island also have similar channels to listen to the voices of foreign residents. Once a year the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family also invites foreign nationals of Korean spouses to meet and discuss policies.
"It's more important during the COVID-19 pandemic because we want information to disseminate. We're hoping the information will get to foreign residents faster with their help," an official from the Gwangju Metropolitan Government said.
Kang Dong-kwan, director of the Migration Research and Training Center based in Seoul, praised the central and local governments for their efforts.
"They're doing pretty well. What they are doing is in line with the government's social integration efforts," Kang said.
To address the needs of a growing number of foreign residents, the government drafts a master plan that it updates every five years.
Kang also pointed to Korea's overall social integration efforts, citing the Migrant Integration Policy Index entry on the country.
The index states: "Its policies guarantee more equal rights, opportunities and support for immigrants than Japan and most central European countries. More specifically, Korea's strengths include strong targeted employment support, school support, voting rights and support for immigrant associations."
The director said he felt Korea's success more during the pandemic.
"I feel Korea is doing well in terms of integrating immigrants, personally. My daughter is staying in the U.S., and she tells me how she gets discriminated against because she is Asian. I don't see that happening in Korea," Kang said.
However, Prof. Seol Dong-hoon from the Jeonbuk National University said the government's approach doesn't reach out to all.
"Marriage migrants can benefit from it, but international students and those who come to Korea to work are still left out. Take the COVID-19 relief funds as an example. Students and workers weren't eligible for it."
Nihat said he is keeping his hopes up.
"When I first came here in 2011, Koreans were simply hostile to foreigners. Now, people at least listen to what we say. In 10 years from now, I am positive things will improve more."