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South Korea records record number of Russians seeking asylum

By Yoonjung Seo, Lucas Lilieholm, and Soeun Kim, CNN

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — A record number of Russians are seeking asylum in South Korea, according to South Korean authorities, with applications surging fivefold last year as Russians became the largest group seeking refuge in the East Asian country.

A total of 5,750 Russian nationals sought asylum in South Korea in 2023, according to a report released earlier this month by the Korean Immigration Service. That’s five times higher than the 1,038 who sought protection in 2022 – and more than the total number of asylum applications from Russians recorded between 1994 and 2019.

Last year also marked the highest number of overall asylum applications for at least the past eight years, according to the Immigration Service. After Russians, the largest groups of asylum seekers came from Kazakhstan, China and Malaysia.

And the trend has continued into this year, with Russians making up the biggest group seeking asylum in January.

The most common reasons cited by asylum seekers were persecution based on religion, followed by political persecution. Other reasons included discrimination for being a member of a specific social group, race or nationality.

The service did not specify the reasons given by Russian asylum seekers.

South Korea has notoriously strict immigration laws – including requests for asylum.

In the past three decades, just 4,052 people have been recognized as refugees in South Korea from more than 103,000 asylum applications, according to the report.

Russian nationals seeking asylum globally have gained widespread attention since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, with hundreds of thousands leaving Russia over the past two years – many of them fleeing military conscription.

In South Korea, five Russian men were stranded at Incheon International Airport near the capital Seoul in 2022 while trying to evade Moscow’s military mobilization order for the war.

The South Korean Justice Ministry refused their applications for refugee status, effectively leaving them in limbo at the airport. Too scared to return to Russia, they spent almost five months sleeping in the terminal and living on handout meals from the South Korean immigration department. In early 2023, two men were allowed to leave the airport.

One of the men told CNN his first plan was to head to Kazakhstan, but he changed his mind when he heard the former Soviet republic was deporting fleeing Russians.

Similar stories have been reported elsewhere; data from United States border authorities showed the number of Russian citizens they encountered surged after Moscow imposed the military draft in September 2022.

From October 2022 to February 2023, nearly 22,000 Russians tried to enter the US through the country’s southern border, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection.

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