Before Abdoulaye Assan stepped into the ring last weekend, a middle-aged woman belted out a warbling rendition of the South Korean national anthem, concluding by straining on the refrain, “Long live our country!”

Assan then strode into the crowded, garishly lit hotel ballroom in western Seoul. He was wearing trunks with both Cameroonian and South Korean flags on the front and text reading, “Thank you Korea. I love Korea” on the rear.

The emcee took the microphone to introduce the two competitors, starting with the champion, 31-year-old local, Jung Ma-ru. Assan was introduced as a “refugee boxer.”

That description, and the mixed loyalties displayed on his trunks, provide clues to the journey that has taken Assan, 34, from a frustrating existence as a police officer in the Cameroonian military to African pseudo sports celebrity in South Korea.

Assan has been in South Korea since 2015, having come here to compete for his native Cameroon in a military athletic competition. He saw that trip as a chance for a new life: He fled the competition, checked into a hotel and started looking into how he could apply for refugee status.

His first asylum application was rejected, but he won broad public attention last year when he won South Korea’s super welterweight championship. A few months later, last July, he won a victory more significant than any boxing match when the South Korean government granted him the right to stay in the country permanently.

His case has taken on a heightened relevance over the past year, as how to handle asylum seekers has become one of the most hotly discussed issues in South Korea. In recent months, hundreds of Yemenis have arrived on the southern island of Jeju and claimed asylum.

Their arrival has sparked an outpouring of hate, fear and xenophobia across Korea.

From war hell to paradise island – and a barrage of hate

Jeju is a sub-tropical island of the south coast of the peninsula, popular among both South Korean honeymooners and Chinese tourists that brands itself “The Island of Peace.” The Yemenis, fleeing their war-torn homeland, traveled to the island on an exemption program first implemented in 2012, which granted nationals of certain countries visa-free access to the island (though not to mainland South Korea) in an effort to boost tourism.

It brands itself the "Island of Peace" but South Korea's Jeju has not been a welcoming destination for hundreds fleeing war-torn Yemen. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
It brands itself the “Island of Peace” but South Korea’s Jeju has not been a welcoming destination for hundreds fleeing embattled Yemen. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans insist that the Yemenis are potential criminals and terrorists, and that, for purposes of public safety, the government should get rid of them. “Koreans first” has become a dominant slogan circulated online and chanted at anti-refugee rallies in central Seoul. It expresses a widespread belief that the government should allocate resources to its own citizens, not to uninvited guests.

Well over 700,000 people have signed a petition on the website of the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, calling on the government to deny the asylum seekers any form of support.

The petition argues that the Yemenis are culturally different from South Koreans and could unleash a wave of unspecified “social problems” not only on Jeju, but throughout the country. The document goes on to posit that some European countries may have a historical debt to provide sanctuary to asylum seekers from poor and unstable countries, but South Korea has no such obligation. It concludes by asking the government to put South Koreans’ “safety and security” ahead of the interests of people staying in the country illegally.

Message boards and comment threads throughout the Korean-language internet are filled with far less polite descriptions of the Yemenis, as well as blunter calls for their swift departure.

Racially homogeneous South Korea has never been known for being particularly welcoming of outsiders.

There are thousands of “mail-order brides” in the countryside from nations such as China and Vietnam married to poor Korean farmers, but despite occasional stories of maltreatment surfacing in media, they have a low social profile. Some 30,000 North Korean defectors have come to South Korea, where many complain that they cannot fit in, and increasing numbers are now migrating to third countries.

However, the backlash against the Yemenis constitutes a high-water mark of xenophobia, says Hwang Pill-kyu, an attorney and advocate at Gong-gam Human Rights Law Foundation.

“No one could have predicted this,” he said. “Even people who have worked with refugees for years have been shocked at the levels of hate.”

Though in South Korea, the Yemenis have been widely accused of being “fake refugees” looking to take advantage of government largesse, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes the situation in Yemen as “a humanitarian catastrophe” taking place “as millions flee their homes to escape a devastating conflict.”

Seoul’s non-response

Though some local humanitarian groups in Jeju have reached out to assist the refugees, no government body in South Korea has taken an official position on how to handle the Yemenis. On July 10, the Ministry of Justice conducted a field visit to Jeju, and in a press release, claimed to have checked that asylum application guidelines were being strictly followed, and to have strengthened surveillance in the name of maintaining order and preventing crimes.

According to the Blue House system, if a petition garners more than 200,000 signatures, the Blue House must issue an official response. Despite the refugee petition more than tripling that number, the government still hasn’t answered. On July 26 another petition was posted, this one calling on the government to respond to the initial petition on the Yemenis.

In response to a written query from Asia Times, a Blue House spokesman said the president’s office will issue an official response to the petition “no later than August 13.”

Hwang argues that the South Korean government has failed to manage the discussion on the refugee issue, creating a vacuum that has been filled by rancorous, anti-Islam voices. “Everything the government has done in this situation is based on a presupposition of fear and danger. No one in the government has spoken out against this kind of hate and identified it as a problem we have to overcome. The government should come out and say that refugees are normal people who have the same aspirations as anyone else,” Hwang said.

If history is any guide, the Yemenis chances of being granted asylum are slim. According to government data, in 2017 South Korea had a total of 9,942 applications for asylum, 121 of which were granted.

Asylum granted – to an athlete

Against this backdrop, Assan is a sign of hope, but also a unique case.

His first application was rejected and he was granted asylum only after he demonstrated exceptional athletic prowess, garnering a flood of media coverage. It seems unlikely that anything but a tiny minority of asylum seekers in South Korea have the skills to distinguish themselves in such a way. And even then, according to the country’s own guidelines, such factors shouldn’t affect asylum decisions.

South Korea’s Ministry of Justice does not comment publicly on the particulars of asylum cases, or why a particular applicant was accepted or rejected.

In the ring, Assan and Jung’s bout went the full twelve rounds. The two fighters looked evenly matched, trading body shots with neither gaining a decisive advantage. In the end, the judges awarded Maru the victory, with Assan losing by a narrow margin on points.

The poster for last weekend's bout in Seoul. Photo; Steven Borowiec
The poster for last weekend’s bout in Seoul. Photo: Steven Borowiec

In the hotel lobby after the fight, Assan’s manager, Lee Kyung-hoon, said it was his fighter’s failure to adapt to customary South Korean in-ring mannerisms that lost him the bout. “He stuck out his tongue at his opponent a few times,” Lee said. “Korean judges don’t like that.”

The fight was Assan’s chance at the WBA Asia Welterweight Championship, and though he missed out, he is secure knowing that he can reside in South Korea indefinitely. He lives without worry of possible deportation to Cameroon.

After the fight, he was in no mood to chat, but reached by phone a few days later, said he was disappointed but determined to keep training to improve, though at 34, he is past his athletic prime and knows he doesn’t have long to compete as a boxer. “I’ll just have to wait for my next fight,” he said.

“My life has changed for the better since I got asylum and I’m grateful to Korea,” he said. He acknowledges that (unlike the Yemenis) his life was not under threat in Cameroon, but that a freer life was his goal in seeking asylum.

Win or lose, he is now in South Korea for the long haul. “To live as a free man is the most important thing in life,” he said.