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Tragic Fire Highlights South Korea's Inhumane Treatment of Migrant Workers
Lee Seon ok & Robert Prey 
At around 4:00am on February 11 a devastating fire swept through the locked cells of a migrant worker detention center in the South Korean city of Yeosu, killing 9 detainees and wounding 18 others. The detention center staff tried to put out the flames by spraying fire extinguishers through the bars of the cells, but in an act that can only be described as barbaric, did not unlock the cell doors to free those trapped inside, out of fear that they would escape. Migrant workers behind the locked doors and bared windows were forced to breath in the toxic fumes emitted from burning mattresses and these fumes were the cause of most of the deaths and injuries.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation but the reality is that the actual roots of the tragedy lie with the Korean government's inhumane policy towards migrant workers.

There are currently about 400 thousand migrant workers in South Korea, of which about 189,000 are undocumented. Migrants in Korea have come either as "Industrial Trainees" or under the government's Employment Permit System, which places them at specific factories and prohibits them from freely moving to other jobs. Most migrant workers experience inhumane treatment, unsafe working environments and low and unpaid wages. As 'fresh' workers are always easier to take advantage of, the government only permits each migrant a maximum 3-year stay in the country.

However, many workers are forced to stay longer in Korea and thus become 'undocumented' after 3 years because they have not made enough money to pay back the brokers who charged them exorbitant fees to come to Korea in the first place.

The government, in an attempt to diminish the number of undocumented migrants in Korea, has responded to this situation with a brutal crackdown. Migrant workers are frequently injured and killed in surprise immigration raids. Moreover, once caught, they face brutal conditions and human rights abuses in detention centers like the one in Yeosu.

The inhumane treatment of the detained migrant workers continued after the fire. Three injured migrants were handcuffed to their hospital beds out of fear they would try to escape. In addition, the Korean government is refusing to reveal information about the incident to the bereaved families of the victims and to Korean civil society organizations.

Labor and human rights organizations continue to condemn the South Korean government for its responsibility in causing the tragedy and its poor handling of the matter. Aside from "being relieved at having put out the fire," the government has not come up with any concrete measures to deal with the incident. Korean civil society and migrant worker organizations are forming a strong joint response to these events.

On February 25, a Joint Committee comprised of over 60 human rights, labor, civic, and religious organizations held a rally in central Seoul attended by over 1000 organization members and migrant workers. The protesters called on the government to provide adequate medical treatment and compensation to victims of the fire, to stop the violent crackdown against migrant workers, and to close down all foreigner detention centers. The demonstration, which furiously denounced the government, was completely barricaded by dozens of police buses. The police had denied the demonstration a permit for a street march after the rally. But demonstrators refused to accept the prohibition on marching. After the rally migrant workers and supporters managed to push past riot police lines and marched through Seoul.

Speaking at the rally, one of the victims of the fire, Mr. W, exclaimed, "I don't know how the fire started, but as the guards at the detention center turned away from our cries to open the doors, it turned into hell itself. Even though we may be illegal migrant workers, how could they treat us that way if they saw us as human beings?" he cried.

A member of one Burmese (Myanmar) community organization who also spoke complained, "Although the democratization of South Korea is well known throughout Asia, since we have come here we haven't felt this democratization because of the color of our skin."

Another migrant worker who participated in the demonstration expressed his indignation saying, "Knowing full well that an illegal immigrant cannot work legally, owners of companies exploit the work of migrant workers for a few months and then report them to the police or the Ministry of Justice to avoid paying their wages. The Korean government doesn't do anything about these owners and only thinks about arresting migrant workers."

Of course, this is a situation familiar to activists throughout the developed world and is not simply a problem limited to the South Korean government. From the US-Mexico border to 'Fortress Europe', repression of migration doesn't stop the movement of desperate migrants, but just makes them more easily exploitable for capitalists.

The Korean government is being criticised on several fronts. The families of the injured and dead were only contacted several days after the fire, the autopsies were conducted without relatives' consent, and the government failed to offer translation to the bereaved families. As well, the government sent 28 migrant workers judged to have "no injuries" to another detention center without consideration of the psychological damage they might have incurred and then outrageously, forcefully deported 17 of these 28 on February 23rd. These 17 were sent back to their countries without receiving any medical treatment or compensation.

"Are these the measures to ensure such a tragedy will not occur again taken by a government that really feels a sense of responsibility?" the Joint Committee asked in its statement released at the rally on February 25th. "If the government really feels a sense of responsibility it must pay reparations to the 17 who were deported immediately!" Finally, the Joint Committee claimed, "If the government seriously had measures planned to deal with the situation and prevent further tragedies like this one from occurring it would immediately close all the inhumane detention centers, stop the man-hunting crackdown and legalize all migrant workers. These measures would be a real beginning to truly solving the problem."

Many voices over the past few weeks have expressed outrage that a developed democracy like South Korea could deal with its migrant workforce in such a backward manner. However, in essence this is not simply just a problem of the Korean government failing in its duty to uphold its status as a "model Asian democracy". Instead it is precisely South Korea's position as a developed, industrial nation which allows it to benefit from the desperation of migrants from poorer countries. Moreover, there is implicit democratic support from the broad populace that for South Korea's economy to survive in its precarious position between a high-tech Japan and a low-wage industrial behemoth like China, it must maintain an economy with two faces; the globally recognized face of its high-tech giants such as Samsung and LG, and then somewhere off in the shadows, the small factories and contractors surviving on the sweat of migrant labor. This is what makes the recent horrific fire at the Yeosu Detention Center more than just a Korean tragedy of government mismanagement but an international problem, and a poignant symptom of modern global capitalism.

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This article is reprinted from Japan Focus. You can see the original version in following address: products/details/2383