By Guest Contributor So Yeon Kim*
“I have lived in South Korea as a ghost. I want to be acknowledged as a living person,” said Marina in her interview in Children That Exist but Don’t Exist. In contrast to her peers who were preparing for the college entrance exam, turning 18 did not mean one step towards her future; instead, it has been a cause of her anxiety. When she turns 19, she could get kicked out of South Korea where she was born, and be moved to Mongolia, the homeland of her parents but a foreign country to her. Marina is a stateless, undocumented migrant child in South Korea.
South Korea has seen a steady increase in the number of migrants that come to achieve the “Korean Dream” and migrants have become an integral part of the economy. South Korea also saw a deep increase in the number of asylum seekers since the implementation of its own domestic Refugee Act in 2013; 71,042 people have applied for refugee status in South Korea from 1994 to 2020, 93% of which have applied after 2013. They come from China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, etcetera – basically from all over the world.
The number of refugee and migrant children also has increased exponentially, as many asylum seekers traveled as families and refugees and migrants gave birth in South Korea while waiting for the determination of their status. When parents lose or fail to acquire legal status, their children become undocumented. Children who are born to refugee and undocumented migrant parents effectively become stateless because the current South Korean Act on Registration of Family Relations limits birth registration to Korean citizens or foreigners with family ties to Korean citizens. South Korea also does not extend citizenship based on birth in the territory. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea estimates that there are about 20,000 undocumented refugee and migrant children in the country.
People may think that these children can get registered at the consulates or embassies of their parents’ countries of origin. However, such a request would be unreasonable because they fled from those very countries in fear of life-threatening persecution. Similarly, many migrant parents cannot register the birth of their children at the embassies because they risk forcible repatriation without valid passports. In some cases, the parents’ countries of origin simply do not have embassies or consulates stationed in South Korea.
Birth registration is a gateway to all basic services in South Korea. Children cannot open mobile phone accounts under their name, go on school trips, volunteer, go to concerts with their friends, make accounts on school websites, register for certificate tests, or apply to colleges. These children cannot afford to get sick or injured because that may result in expensive hospital bills. At the beginning of the pandemic, such individuals could not buy face masks or go to restaurants or cafes– all because they did not have birth certificates.
To alleviate the stateless status of refugee and migrant children, South Korea should systemize universal birth registration and require medical institutions to register the birth of the children regardless of their parents’ legal status or origins. Some argue that this would increase the administrative burden on health professionals. However, South Korea is obliged to register the birth of all children under Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); administrative burden cannot be an excuse to not comply with this obligation. In its recent concluding observations, the Committee on the Rights of the Child also recommended the South Korean government ensure that all children within the territory are equally able to be registered at birth.
Furthermore, many other countries that also grant citizenship to their nationals only – such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Singapore, and Thailand – have adopted a two-tier approach that minimizes work for the health professionals while ensuring that all children are registered at birth. In this approach, hospitals report on the birth of the child, and the parents follow up with the rest of the birth registration process.
On April 19, 2021, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) announced that they would grant conditional status to foreign children who were born in South Korea and have stayed in Korea for over 15 years. MOJ also proposed an amendment to the Act on Registration of Family Relations to require hospitals to report the birth of the child to the Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service. While these are big steps forward, they still fail to adequately protect the fundamental rights of refugee and migrant children.
South Korea should design a comprehensive approach to systemize universal birth registration. The international community should show solidarity for the implementation of universal birth registration by monitoring and providing guidance and support to South Korea to strive toward meeting the global target for Sustainable Development Goal 16.9: providing legal identity for all, including universal birth registration by 2030.
*So Yeon Kim is the current Human Rights Studies M.A. student at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Previously, she worked for UNHCR Korea Office, Refuge pNan, and Advocates for Public Interest Law to advocate for the rights of refugees in South Korea.
**Cover photo by Designer Hyewon Kwon.