Publisher: AFP, Agence France Presse
Author: Nam You-Sun
Story date: 29/11/2011
From an office in Seoul's glitzy financial district, eight counsellors on the end of a phone line try to help refugees from North Korea make sense of a bewildering new world.
The call centre run by the North Korean Refugees Foundation opened in May on an experimental basis and now gets an average 1,120 calls a month a sign of the problems that refugees face adjusting to the competitive capitalist South.
For decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, the South saw just a trickle of arrivals from its impoverished hardline socialist neighbour. In recent years, there has been a steady stream.
Of the 23,700 to arrive since 1953, some 10,000 came in the past four years.
All new arrivals must spend three months in the Hanawon government resettlement centre, where they get job training and learn basic survival skills such as how to buy a subway ticket or use a credit card.
They also get financial and housing support upon leaving.
"They get education at Hanawon for three months, but many times that's not enough because the system is so different in the South," said Ma Soon-Hee, who herself fled the North.
"Adjusting to the capitalist system is the most difficult. Defectors often have a hard time understanding that they have to work hard to earn more, and that people get different levels of salaries."
Some people who left family in the North sometimes say they think of going back because they feel lonely and find it hard to make a living in the South, she told AFP.
"Life can be hard for people who were allotted food, work and money for their entire lives in the North... the freedom they get after coming here can be tarnished by harsh reality," Ma said.
The centre operates round the clock every day of the year.
Many callers seek aid with employment, housing and resettlement funds because they find regulations too complicated. Counsellors field calls on what kind of government aid exists and whether the caller qualifies to receive it.
There are some odder requests.
One woman asked where she could buy cabbages and other ingredients to make kimchi, Korea's national dish.
Another asked about her marital status. She has family in North Korea but fled by herself, and wondered whether she would be considered single in the South.
Almost all refugees cross the border into China but face repatriation if discovered there. Those seeking to come to South Korea must first travel on to Southeast Asian nations.
Ma was once contacted by two North Korean sisters in Thailand, who asked her to phone a Korean consulate so they could stay there pending a flight. She was able to help and the sisters later arrived in the South.
Four of the counsellors were born in South Korea and four are former refugees. They are paired to work together.
Ma, now 61, fled the North in 1998 and spent five years in China before coming to the South in 2003.
"When I first came here, there was no such thing as education. We were turned loose into society immediately and I was confused at first," she said.
"Now they have a much better system and the situation is definitely improving, but I still feel the need for people to get support."
A July report from the International Crisis Group think-tank starkly spelt out the problems, saying almost refugees fail to integrate or thrive.
New arrivals on average were significantly smaller, worse educated, less healthy and less likely to have useful skills, but must adapt to a country where credentials and networks are essential to find jobs.
Coming from a country where an all-powerful bureaucracy makes almost all life decisions, they "describe a bewildering rush of modernity, consumption and choice that rapidly overwhelms them", the report said.
It called for a new approach by Seoul's government including tough laws to prevent discrimination.
"The difficulties of handling just over 20,000 refugees over a few decades should be a warning to those who wish to encourage the collapse of the North rather than a more gentle integration," the report said.
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution