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Nine Killed In Detention Centre Blaze: Unions Demand Legalisation for Migrant Workers in Korea 

On 11 February 2007 a fire swept through the Yeosu Immigration Controls Office, a detention facility which holds undocumented workers. The fire killed nine workers and wounded 18 others. The fatalities occurred because prison officials refused to release workers from their cells. The Migrant workers Trade Union (MTU) of Korea has issued a statement and call to action which is reprinted here (sample protest fax linked below).
Dear allies and friends,

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 workers.

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 families.
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 support,
Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrant’s Trade Union