Questions surround Moroccan asylum seeker’s airport death in Korea

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - A teenage Moroccan who came to Korea seeking for asylum died, raising questions about possible physical abuse in the process of deportation.

A Moroccan asylum seeker in Korea was belatedly confirmed to have died several months ago at Incheon International Airport while being deported by immigration officers, with human rights activists claiming there may have been “excessive” use of force.

The 18-year-old Moroccan lost consciousness at the airport while being taken to the boarding gate on March 20, according to a report obtained by The Korea Herald. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but died, the Justice Ministry confirmed.

The police conducted an autopsy on his body in March and sent the case to the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office. His body was transported to his home country in April upon his family’s request.

In early November, the prosecutorial probe ended, but the cause and circumstances surrounding the death remain unknown.

“We couldn’t confirm the cause of his death, but we concluded that he died while being subdued by the immigration officers,” an official from the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office told The Korea Herald. “But we cannot file charges as we don’t know the cause of his death.”

Refugee rights activists here raised the possibility that the immigration officers might have physically abused him while subduing him to take him to the airport for deportation from Hwaseong detention centre, where he was staying.

“We had asked for related documents including his death certificate and reports on his life at the detention centre, but the government kept saying it cannot disclose the information as a probe was underway,” Kim Seong-in, secretary-general of refugee rights group NANCEN, told The Korea Herald.

In Korea, citizens and civic groups have the right to information about public administration. It should be provided within two weeks.

“But I wonder why they have still not provided us with the information even after the probe concluded,” he said. “Does the Justice Ministry have something to hide?”

According to testimonies from foreigners who were forcibly deported from Korea, human rights abuses often take place especially during the deportation process. They claimed that the immigration officers handcuffed them, covered their faces with a cloth and turned off lights inside the bus to beat them up.

A Pakistani witness, who was detained at the same time as the late Moroccan, explained that he had strongly resisted the deportation order and was forcibly dragged to the airport. The Moroccan feared he would face persecution back home, the witness said, wishing to remain anonymous.

“If the Korean government did not force him to go back home, he would still be alive,” he told The Korea Herald.

Kim of NANCEN said the government should clarify what really caused Mahammad’s death so as to prevent recurrences.

The young Moroccan entered Korea on a tourist visa last year and stayed past its expiration. He was arrested for theft and transferred to Hwaseong detention centre where he applied for refugee status in January due to religious reasons.

Since the enactment of the Refugee Act in 2013, asylum seekers can apply for refugee status at the detention centres and are deported if denied. The applicants wait in the detention centre until the result comes out, which normally takes up to three years.

The former and current detainees The Korea Herald met all likened the detention centre to “prison” due to what they called appalling conditions inside.

The Moroccan could not cope with the ill treatment and even swallowed two batteries attempting suicide while at the detention centre, the Pakistani fellow detainee said.

According to a report by Korean Bar Association, some 16 detainees are locked in one room with iron bars and cannot freely get out, move around or use the Internet to connect to the outside world. They can only step outside the building twice a week for 20 minutes each.

The Justice Ministry, however, said the teenager’s death had nothing to do with how he was treated or the conditions at the detention facilities.

“He had mental health problems and attempted suicide a few times. He went to the hospital three times for such abnormal actions,” an official from the ministry explained.

The ministry said he had not responded to its request for interview six times, which gave it legal ground to deny asylum and order him to leave the country.

But the authorities did not respond to The Korea Herald’s request to confirm the conditions inside the detention centre.

The Refugee Act stipulates that those seeking asylum in Korea cannot be deported during the application process. But the law also states that the Justice Ministry can end the refugee application process when asylum seekers do not present themselves for interviews for more than three times.

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