Last Sunday February 16th, Samar Thapa was on his way to deliver solidarity flyers to a group of Filipino activists in Seoul’s Tae Hak No district when he was nabbed by plainclothes immigration officers and immediately hustled away to a detention center in the port city of Yeosu, some 400 kilometers away from Seoul.
Samar is the head of the Emergency Struggle Team of the Equality Trade Union – Migrant’s Branch (ETU-MB), a politicized migrant workers’ union in South Korea that have been resisting steady government repression since the immigration manhunt began on November 17th 2003. Since then, the Justice Ministry has detained 3,192 undocumented foreign workers while deporting 2,831 of them as of last Monday, according to Lim Chae-lim, an official at the Residence Control Division of the Justice Ministry in an interview with the Korea Times. Over thirty thousand have left voluntarily, while 7 have committed suicide. Many other migrants have fled their jobs and homes in fear of the immigration police; some have taken to hiding out in the mountains during intense crackdown periods.
The deportations come as the government is trying to push through a new Employee Permit System for foreign workers, forcing workers who have been in the country for more than three years to leave for a period of six months before entering under the new system once it comes into effect in August. To prepare the way for the new system, the government has been carrying out immigration crackdowns every two weeks after which migrant workers are given two weeks to voluntarily leave the county.
“The intention of the roundup is not to deport every undocumented migrant worker in the country but to give a warning to the rest. Even if we are successful in rounding up only some 10,000 (undocumented foreign workers), it will certainly give a warning to the remaining 110,000” official Lim Chae-lim said.
As a result, the Equality Trade Union – Migrant’s Branch has been one of the few voices left for migrant workers. Their highly visible sit-in in front of the Myongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul, as well as their weekly demonstrations in support of migrants’ rights have been crucial in rallying public support and pushing through many of the changes to the EPS, such as the expansion of the EPS from a one to three year system, and the six month waiting period option for long term migrants. However, the ETU-MB maintains that the EPS does not take into account the realities of migration, such as the high recruitment fees that migrants pay to enter the country and which take years to pay off, or the language and work skills of the migrants that have worked in Korea for up to ten years — many of whom have families, jobs, and friends that they do not want to leave behind.
The irony is that their success in putting migrant’s issues on the table has earned them a vendetta against their very existence as an organization. Over the last one hundred days of their sit-in, the ETU-MB has been attacked by immigration officials and riot police using hit and run tactics that employ stun guns, tear gas, and brute physical force in order to snatch up as many migrant organizers as possible.
After the arrest of Samar Thapa last Sunday, the ETU-MB were attacked once again when they held an emergency protest in front of Seoul’s Mok Dong Immigration Office. During the rally, 200 riot police and immigration officers surrounded their bus. During the struggle that ensued, the ETU-MB lost another member but were able to escape to the clutches of the immigration officers thanks to the help of student and trade union activists.
In late December, South Korea deported ETU-MB organizers Khademul Islam Bidduth and Jamal Ali to Bangladesh where upon arrival both men were charged under an obscure national security law for associating with trade unions and civil society groups in Korea. At another solidarity rally in early January, Immigration officers used stun guns to capture Kul Bahadur Yakha and Enamul Haq, Nepali and Bangladeshi ETU-MB members, by knocking them unconscious and dragging them into an awaiting bus and then driving recklessly off, injuring protestors and a priest in the process. Gupta, the latest ETU-MB member arrested, as well as Kul, Haq, and 17 other migrant workers have now begun a hunger strike in Seoul’s Hwasong Detention Center, where the bulk of foreign workers are being held awaiting deportation.
As the sit-in reached its hundredth day Sunday, the ETU-MB held a large solidarity rally with over 700 undocumented foreign workers and 400 supporters. They marched through Tae Hak No flanked by 1000 riot police from Seoul notorious 1000th through 1018th riot squads who are know for their vicious repression of union protests (news footage of the 1001 riot squad in action against DaeWoo unionists was even featured in the 2002 British horror film 28 Days Later which depicts an experiment in which chimpanzees are forced to watch violent footage).
In response to Sunday’s protests, the Ministry of Justice claimed that it will arrest and deport all illegal foreign workers who participate in illegal gatherings and demonstrations, beginning a more concentrated crackdown effort starting from Monday, February 24th, when the period for voluntary departures ends late this month. The Ministry of Justice will also begin a combined investigation with police on illegal foreign workers in all businesses, reports South Korea’s Choson Ilbo.
The government acknowledges that it cannot deport all 110,000 remaining undocumented workers. But if it can deprive them of a voice then they will be easier to silence. Meanwhile, the ETU-MB and their members vow to continue their sit-in and organizing efforts, even in the midst of the thermidor in which their members are being slowly melted away.
The Equality Trade Union – Migrants’ Branch keeps the public informed of their actions through their website http://migrant.nodong.net/ver2/index_e.html, and through http://www.base21.org/. Act Now:, send an instant online protest letter to the Korean government letter via www.labourstart.org.
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