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For 70 Days, the Only Food Korea Provided Was Chicken Burgers Three Times a Day
By Kim Han-sol
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ㆍA Nightmare at the Departure Waiting Room for one Ethiopian Refugee

In the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal released in 2004, Tom Hanks, who plays the main character, is confined to the New York JFK Airport for 9 months.

Although he stepped onto US soil with high hopes from a small eastern European state, he ends up without a nationality when a coup d'etat disintegrates his country. Unable to enter New York or return to his country, he is forced to live in the airport.

Something you thought was only in the movies has become a reality. G (32), who is from the Oromo tribe, an ethnic minority in Ethiopia, escaped his country in June 2010. He felt threatened when he was locked up in prison and tortured after being falsely accused of having murdered a government soldier.

G escaped to Kenya, but his fears did not disappear. He heard that he had a chance to survive if he applied as a refugee in Korea, which is a country that ratified the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. After receiving a fake passport from a broker, G boarded a plane for Korea and arrived at Incheon Airport on May 14, 2011.

He had big dreams of living a new life in Korea. G expressed his intention to apply for refugee status at the immigration checkpoint. However, he was sent straight to the airport's departure waiting room, a place where they gather people who have been denied entrance, without any screening for refugee status.

It was impossible to check his identity because he had torn the fake passport upon arriving at the airport. What's more, his final destination according to his flight ticket was not Korea.

▲ He Had to Sleep on a Small Chair in a Room with No Windows: Virtually a Prison

G told the official from the Ministry of Justice who visited the waiting room the following day that he would apply for refugee status. However, the day after, he handed another official a statement saying that he would return to Ethiopia.

He mentioned that while he was in the waiting room, he heard from another Korean that he would starve to death if he did not return to his country. He explained, "I wrote that I would return because I thought it would be better to be shot dead than to starve to death." He ended up in a situation where he had to return to Ethiopia, a place he had gone through so much trouble to escape.

However, things began to get worse. The Ethiopian government did not allow his entrance. Suddenly, he had nowhere to go. He had to wait two-and-a-half months in a waiting room where people stay a day or two before they are forced to return.

There are no windows in the departure waiting room, which can accommodate 20~30 people. He slept on a chair. Occasionally he asked the staff at the airport and ate instant noodles, but the only food he received in the waiting room was the same kind of chicken burger for all three meals.

▲ Refugee Status in 1 Year and 9 Months with the Help of a Thai Refugee Group on His Return to Ethiopia

G revealed, "When I was in the departure waiting room, some Koreans called me a criminal and insulted me saying, 'Korea doesn't need you.' The waiting room was practically a prison."

Although the departure waiting room is Korean territory, it is located before the immigration checkpoint, so it is a type of "international area" where the application of domestic law is uncertain. The Ministry of Justice does not manage this area, instead a group of airlines commissions the management to a private firm.

G finally got on a plane for Ethiopia after his identity was confirmed by Korea's Ministry of Justice in late July. However, on his way back to Ethiopia, he was held once again at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand, a stopover. Ethiopian Airlines denied his boarding.

He had to stay another 7 months at the foreigner's shelter in Thailand. There with the help of a Thai refugee group, he was able to apply for refugee status at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

However, the Thai government did not acknowledge his status as a refugee stating that they had not ratified the Convention. Eventually, he had to pack his bags once again to head for New Zealand. After wandering about 4 countries in a year and 9 months, he finally settled at his final destination, New Zealand.

Korea heard of G's unfortunate story through the human rights groups in Thailand. Recently, G has submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea through Kim Jong-cheol, a legal advocate in Korea.

Kim, who spoke directly with G in Thailand, insisted, "Returning a man who has expressed his intentions to apply for refugee status to a country where he would be under the threat of being killed is a clear violation of human rights that goes against the principle of non-refoulement."

He added, "Recently, we are getting many calls complaining that no one is providing information for those who want to apply for refugee status at the airport departure waiting room. The waiting room is a blind spot for human rights where even access is limited."

G also complained about Korea's Ministry of Justice. He claimed, "The Ministry of Justice official recommended that I write the statement saying that I would return to Ethiopia. I submitted an application for refugee status a second time through an airline employee while I was in the waiting room, but it was denied."

However, the ministry states that they never recommended G to return to Ethiopia and that they received no additional applications for refugee status. The ministry added that they had no choice but to send him back to Ethiopia because he had expressed his will to return in his statement.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea announced, "We are verifying the facts with the airlines and ministry officials according to G's petition, and plan to announce the results of our investigation soon."

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