How Korean law firms are leading changes for refugees
In 2013, the Republic of Korea was the first Asian country to enact a standalone Refugee Act. As one of UNHCR's top donors, the country has continued to show support to improving the situation of people forced to flee, including through supporting the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework projects in Uganda for six years in a row. In 2019, the Republic of Korea submitted five pledges and actively participated in the first Global Refugee Forum (GRF).
Civil society activists have also been very active. They were engaged in preparations for the first GRF, with both overseas development actors and the Korean Refugee Rights Network (a domestic asylum actor) travelling to Geneva and formulating a series of pledges. Several Korean law firms also joined the joint legal community pledge made at the 2019 GRF, committing to raise awareness on refugee and statelessness issues. Furthermore, a Memorandum of Understanding signed between over 10 Korean law firms and a refugee rights organization (NANCEN) to provide financial and legal assistance was presented as a good practice. Law firms such as these are key actors that help make the principles of the Compact come to life.
One of the participants of this pledge, Dongcheon Foundation and its partner law firm Bae, Kim, and Lee LLC (BKL), provides legal assistance to refugees, including for the asylum application process. It also provides legal aid training, training for interpreters, and organizes advocacy activities.
As people flee life threatening situations, they sometimes do not have legal documentation when arriving in a host country. Throughout their entire journey, refugees face legal obstacles, often for documentation, education, access to the labor market, and more.
In 2021, the Foundation and BKL assisted a refugee who was deemed ineligible to apply for public rental housing by a district community center. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating that refugees have the same right to apply for public housing as Korean nationals and have the same level of social security, therefore making them eligible for rental housing programmes. This not only demonstrated the importance of the work done by pro bono law firms, but also the will of courts to recognize refugee rights and the integration of refugees in national systems.
More recently, Dongcheon Foundation, as well as other civil society stakeholders and legal practitioners, assisted several asylum-seekers whose non-recognition decisions were cancelled, and applicants were given another opportunity to present their cases, following challenges noted in the interpretation and interview process. Some found new lives as recognized refugees in the Republic of Korea, thanks to their lawyers’ efforts and the government’s re-examination of their claims. There is now better oversight and accountability for refugee interviews and interpretation.
To better the lives of people forced to flee and their host communities, coordination between the private sector, civil society, government, and other actors is essential. By joining the effort to assist refugees, law firms are broadening the base of support and contributing to attaining the goals of the Global Compact on Refugees.