A technical loophole allowed the Yemenis to enter South Korean territory visa-free, but their arrival was met with a strong anti-immigrant backlash. South Korea has some of the toughest refugee laws in the world.
The South Korean Ministry of Justice announced on Wednesday that it denied refugee status to hundreds of Yemenis who had arrived in the island of Jeju earlier this year; they could enter due to a loophole that allowed for visa-free travel.
Of the roughly 500 people from the conflict-plagued nation that arrived on the South Korean island, a total of 481 formally applied for asylum.
No full asylum, 34 outright rejections
Ultimately, the Korean government did not grant asylum to any of them. Some 34 were rejected outright, but 339 were given humanitarian stay permits.
Those who received rejections will have the option to appeal the decision, while the situation of another 85 asylum seekers has been deferred by authorities.
The humanitarian permit would allow the Yemenis to remain in the country for a year. Last month, South Korea's government gave 23 residence permits, mostly families with children or pregnant women.
Permits can be renewed every 12 months, but can also be refused if authorities determine that the security situation in Yemen improves.
On June 1, the government also amended the Jeju visa exemption rules to exclude Yemenis.
Not a refugee-friendly country
The Yemeni arrivals triggered an anti-immigrant backlash in South Korea this summer. The Asian nation is not known for its openness to foreigners, having only approved 4.1 percent of refugee applications since 1994.
Most foreigners that live in South Korea come from China and Southeast Asia. The only exception to the rule applies to North Korean defectors, who are automatically granted citizenship in the South.
According to an opinion poll taken after the arrival of the Yemeni asylum-seekers, about half of South Koreans opposed the arrivals, 39 percent were in favor and some 12 percent undecided.
Yemenis' Muslim religion was one of the reasons that South Koreans cited for opposing the newcomers
Some 700,000 people signed a petition on the presidential website urging that the government tighten refugee laws. South Korea already has some of the world's toughest refugee laws.
Yemen has been ravaged by a civil war — plus military intervention from a Saudi-led coalition in support of the government-in-exile, and allegations of clandestine Iranian support for rebel forces — for the past three years that has left the country on the brink of famine and disease outbreaks.
Nearly 10,000 people have been killed by the Yemen conflict and 3 million have been displaced. Thousands more have died from malnutrition and disease.
jcg/msh (Reuters, AFP)