On Feb. 15, the last day of the Lunar New Year holidays, police officers and immigration authorities raided a Nepali restaurant in Dongdaemun, northern Seoul, where 30 migrant workers were having a community meeting.
The crackdown, according to the Gyeonggi Provincial Police Agency, was aimed at breaking up an illegal gambling syndicate in the area. However, they could not find any evidence of gambling on the premises.
The officers divided the Nepali workers into two groups -- one staying here legally and the other staying illegally -- and arrested 10 undocumented workers immediately.
Despite police denial, no related rules on immigrant crackdown were abided by during the whole procedure, migrant workers' groups said at a press conference held yesterday.
"The police didn't follow the minimum rules such as informing them of their Miranda rights. Immigrant workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in Korea. We don't understand why the authorities treat them so harshly in the name of justice," said Rep. Lee Soo-ho of the minority Democratic Labor Party.
When the Korean authorities investigate migrant workers, regardless of whether they are documented or not, they must abide by a code of practices, which took effect in June last year. The guidelines are to be offered in 14 languages.
However, because the rules are an administrative order, not legally binding, migrant groups have pointed out that there is still a possibility of human rights abuses.
Under the rules, at least one female officer should join every crackdown in case of the arrest or body check of female foreigners.
However, no female officer accompanied the police squad when they arrested 10 Nepali workers, including one woman. Moreover, she was found later to be married to a Korean man and was released after three hours of false imprisonment.
"Hypocrites," said Michel, president of the Migrants' Trade Union, who asked not to be fully named. Assisted by Korean activists, the group helps migrant workers on legal and abuse issues.
"You (the Korean government) spend millions if not billions on advertising on how Korea is a multicultural society. ... But your policies are aimed to use our labor to feed your economy. Our rights do not matter to you," he said.
It has been four years since the 39-year-old Filipino factory worker came to Korea.
Despite its highly-publicized campaign for multiculturalism, nothing has changed in the government's treatment of migrant workers, he said. "Rather, the situation has never been worse."
"Back then when I first came here, undocumented workers also used to participate in our street marches. However, now, even those staying legally feel danger and fear about the government's repressive attitude," he said.
During the press conference held by some 20 activists in front of the Seodaemun Police Agency in central Seoul, scores of police officers were dispatched, with riot police buses blocking the participants from leaving the area.
"When an event for making rice-cake soup with migrant workers was held on one side, the police were cruelly clamping down on them on the other. It is just hypocrisy and barbarism," said a statement issued jointly by migrant workers' groups.
While no official comment came from the police, the groups submitted a complaint against the Gyeonggi Police, demanding an official apology as well as a thorough investigation into the crackdown.
By Lee Ji-yoon