Syrian refugees stuck in limbo at Seoul airport

Migrants in limbo at South Korean airport
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Migrants in limbo at South Korean airport 02:39

Story highlights

  • Dozens of Syrians are living in an airport in South Korea, hoping to gain refugee status
  • They can't leave the airport and many are too scared to go home

(CNN)The men sleep where they can on airport benches, while others stand or crouch in every corner. Small suitcases and plastic bags filled with treasured possessions fill in the gaps until there is no more floor space to be seen.

This waiting room at Seoul's Incheon airport is not for a delayed flight. Instead, it's a temporary home for 28 Syrian men waiting to hear if they can enter South Korea or will be deported back to the war-torn country they have fled.
    Muhammed is in his early 20s. He escaped from Aleppo when his house was destroyed and Bashar al-Assad's government called him up for military service.
    "Some are running away from joining the army, some are running away from the government and the military service," he said through a mobile video call. "We ran away from Syria because we don't want to be part of the war. We don't want to hold a gun."
    This cramped waiting area has been home for Muhammed for six months. His lawyers say the Syrians are among 180 would-be refugees who are packed into airport facilities that should, at most, hold 50. South Korea's Justice Ministry says only 116 people are there.
    There are no beds, no windows and only one shower each for men and women. The Syrians are limited to three meals a day of burgers and Coke. Most of them eat just the bread as the meat is not halal, or permissible for Muslims under Islamic law. The refugees get occasional monitored walks through the duty-free store to stretch their legs.
    The Justice Ministry refused CNN access to what they call the "repatriation waiting room," citing security concerns, but Muhammed filmed the area to show us where he is living.
    When asked about the conditions, Justice Ministry officials said the refugees' situation was the responsibility of a committee overseeing airline operations. But the committee said they have asked the government to take responsibility. With everyone passing the blame, lawyers fear conditions will simply not improve.
    Muhammed's family is still in Syria as they didn't have enough money for them all to leave. The refugee, who came to South Korea through Turkey and China, says he knows he is better off than many of his fellow countrymen facing a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.
    "I have friends who died in the sea and I'm so sad about that," he said. "I couldn't try that way because I saw my friends and thousands of other people drowning in the sea."
    Immigration authorities rejected Muhammed's initial request for asylum on arrival, saying he didn't have a clear reason for applying for refugee status and that he came to South Korea not directly from Syria but from a safe country. His lawyers are arguing that China, which regularly sends North Korean refugees back, and Turkey, which Amnesty International claims is banishing some refugees, are not safe countries.
    From 1994 until now only three Syrians have been granted refugee status in South Korea. Another 668 have been allowed in under "humanitarian status" since 2014, a new effort for South Korea in helping with the Syrian refugee crisis. These Syrians, while safe, are not eligible for benefits and are expected to return home once the reason they fled has resolved itself.
    Lawyers tell us they struggle to find work in a highly competitive country where youth unemployment is rising.
    But for now even this is a distant dream for Muhammed, who misses the days he was in college in Syria, studying finance, before the civil war began. It's a world away from sitting in a cramped airport room for months on end, waiting for someone he has never met to decide his fate.