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Korea to guarantee undocumented children more rights

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Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae speaks during a ministerial meeting of social issues at the Government Complex Sejong, Wednesday. Courtesy of Ministry of Education
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae speaks during a ministerial meeting of social issues at the Government Complex Sejong, Wednesday. Courtesy of Ministry of Education

By Lee Hae-rin

Undocumented children of foreign national parents, who are mostly staying here as illegal aliens, will be guaranteed more rights in education, healthcare and other welfare programs, the government said Wednesday.

The administration announced a set of measures to better protect and support such children, drawn up jointly by the relevant ministries, of justice, education, health and welfare, family and gender equality, and interior and safety.

The measures follow calls to improve the situations of such children, as they are denied basic rights and social services. The justice ministry estimates their number at 3,400, but the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) and other relevant civic groups presume that the actual figure is around 20,000.

In response to the calls, the justice ministry announced a policy in April to give such children legal status and allow them temporary residency. But this policy has specific conditions that are difficult for the children and their parents to meet: the children must have been born in Korea and have lived here for at least 15 years, the children must have graduated from elementary school before Feb. 28, 2021, the parents must pay the fines for their illegal stay in the country, and they must leave the country when the child becomes an adult.

The NHRCK asked the justice ministry to improve the policy, saying that it would benefit only about 500 out of the approximately 20,000 undocumented children in Korea.

Under the new measures, the law on secondary schools will be revised to guarantee a high school education for the undocumented children. So far, they have been eligible for mandatory elementary and middle school education but enrollment in high school required the principal's approval.

The education authorities will also provide them with supplementary aid, including scholarships and Korean language training.

While undocumented children have limitations receiving an education and other social services without foreign national registration numbers, more government agencies will introduce temporary registration numbers to be used for their health checkups, the use of welfare facilities and participation in state-administered exams.

According to the current Immigration Law, civil servants other than public healthcare workers, have a duty to report foreign nationals residing in the country illegally to the immigration authorities. But now, civil servants at organizations related to children's education, development and health will also be exempted from the obligation, so that undocumented parents and children will not have to refrain from accessing these services.

Among the estimated 20,000 unregistered children in Korea, only 3,196 are enrolled in elementary, middle and high school education, according to data from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education. However, an even smaller percent, only 10 percent or 315 children, are registered for high school education, which is not considered part of compulsory education as mandated by the Fundamentals of Education Act.

The government will also come up with a birth registration system for all babies born here of parents of foreign nationality, so that they can use it for identification, even if they currently lack a foreign resident registration number.


Lee Hae-rin lhr@koreatimes.co.kr


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