In South Korea, Afghan evacuees find hope in their new 'special merit' status

SEOUL, Sept 2 (Reuters) - After many sleepless nights, a 41-year-old Afghan medical doctor successfully left Kabul with his family before the Taliban seized power last month and is set to begin a new life in South Korea.

The Afghan doctor is one of 390 evacuees who arrived in Seoul last week where the government said it was amending immigration laws to grant long-term residency to those who provided special service to South Korea. read more

Most of them are the families of people who had worked with the South Korean embassy, the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), and a hospital, among others.

"I'd like to continue my profession and I'd like to work as a medical doctor here," he told Reuters via Zoom during a two-week quarantine at a state-run facility.

"Of course, if getting a certificate is needed, I'll try to get the Korean certificate," he said, requesting to speak anonymously due to security reasons.

Immigration is a contentious issue in South Korea, a country where many pride themselves on ethnic homogeneity. But according to a Realmeter poll this week, about 70 percent of South Koreans support the plan to grant the Afghans special status.

Another Afghan evacuee told Reuters he appreciated the fact that the government had given them the status of "persons of special merit" rather than refugees.

"They don't call us refugees, they call us a special contributor and we are so proud of that name. We are so happy with that name," he said. "We came here and we want to live for a long time in peace," he added.

Dr. Sohn Moon-jun, former head of Korea Hospital in Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, said that the government has made efforts to help the arrivals get accepted but there was much to be done on South Korea's refugee policy.

"The refugee policy is almost absent in our country. In other countries, they have been accepting way more refugees. It is time to begin a discussion to establish policies on it," said Dr. Sohn.

Only 55 out of the 6,684 people who sought refugee status in South Korea in 2020 received it. In 2019, South Korea accepted 79 out of the 15,452 people who applied for refugee status in the country.

Reporting by Hyun Young Yi; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa

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