Greetings from the
Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrant’s Trade Union. We are a union formed
by and for migrant workers in South Korea. Our members come from many
countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
We write to inform
you about a tragic fire that recently broke out in a foreigner’s
detention center in the city of Yeosu in South Korea’s Southern
Cholla Province. We hope you will take serious notice of this incident
and South Korea’s inhumane treatment of migrant workers, which
are at its roots, and organize a response in your area in solidarity
with our efforts here in Korea.
At around 4:00am
on February 11 a large-scale fire swept through the locked cells of
the detention center at the Yeosu Immigration Controls Office, killing
9 detainees and wounding 18 others. Neither the alarm system nor sprinklers
operated when the fire broke out. The detention center staff tried to
put out the flames using portable fire distinguishers but failed in
their attempt. Even so, they did not unlock cell doors to free the people
inside out of fear that they would escape. Migrants trapped behind locked
doors and bared windows were forced to breath in the toxic fumes emitted
from burning mattresses that contained Urethane. These fumes were the
cause of most of the deaths and injuries. The fire was not contained
until after firefighters arrived on the scene.
The proximate cause
of the fire is still under investigation. The South Korean government
has said it suspects arson committed by one detainee in an attempt to
escape; however it has not produced any evidence. Despite this alibi
is not hard to see that the real roots of the tragedy lie elsewhere—in
the government’s inhumane anti-human rights policy towards migrant
There are currently
roughly 400 thousand migrant workers in South Korea, of who 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. Therefore, many see no other choice but
to leave their assigned jobs in search of better conditions, thus
becoming undocumented. The government has responded to this situation
with a brutal crackdown in an attempt to diminish the number of
undocumented migrants in Korea. Migrant workers are frequently injured
and killed in surprise immigration raids. What is more, they face
brutal conditions and human rights abuses in detention centers like
the one in Yeosu, which are worse than prisons.
It is because of
this situation created by faulty government policies that the tragedy
in Yeosu occurred. In fact a similar fire broke out at the same facility
in 2005, but the Yeosu immigration office never conducted a thorough
inspection of its fire prevention system nor updated its equipment.
The inhumane treatment of migrant workers has also been evident in the
aftermath of the fire. 3 injured migrants were handcuffed to their hospital
beds out of fear they would try to escape. What is more, the government
is refusing to reveal information about the incident to the bereaved
families and civil society organizations.
In response, MTU has come together with migrant community and civil
society organization in Korea to form a collective response. We are
conducting a public education campaign to raise awareness about the
incident and its roots and investigating the actual condition in detention
centers around the country. We will also hold a mass demonstration on
February 25. Our demands of the South Korean government are as follows:
1. Full disclosure
of the real causes and facts of the tragedy, punishment of those responsible,
resignation of the Minister of Justice and compensation to the bereaved
2. Closure of all detention centers for their inhumane conditions and
implementation of steps to revise the system.
3. An end to the brutal crackdowns and legalization of all migrant workers.
4. Institution of a system for the payment of back-wages and protection
of migrant workers rights.
We ask you to
please fax or email the attached protest
letter to the South Korean government and/or organize a protest
in front of the local South Korean embassy. Please also help us
in spreading the word about this horrible tragedy by passing this
message along to your networks. Finally, after you have conducted
these activities please write us a short message and/or send pictures
to let us know.
Thank you for your
Migrant’s Trade Union