Lee Sang-jae (Head of Education and Public Relations Team, Korea Migrant Workers Human Rights Center)
I see the faces of my family members after 6 years. My wife, who was so pretty when I was a virgin, and my son, who has grown taller than my mother, and is supporting her dark-colored mother, and my beloved daughter. I want to convey my warmth to those faces that I have always stroked in photos, but my frozen arms do not move. Even if my body was torn apart for an autopsy, I’ll fix it up a bit. I was upset the whole time that I had not shown an ugly appearance to my family that I had not seen in a long time. And I’m sorry I couldn’t hug you tight. I still can’t feel myself lying in the freezer of a morgue in a hospital in Yeosu like this. I have no idea where I went wrong, or what sin I have committed to cut my stomach and meet my beloved family in this cold freezer.
I came to Korea 6 years ago. Watching my children grow up, I wanted to prepare for their college tuition in advance. I needed a lot of money to go to Korea, but I was able to make many times more money than in Korea, enough to pay it all off in a few years and cover my kids’ tuition and living expenses. I was determined to have a hard time.
I came to Korea as a trainee. The first thing I did was catch anchovies in a small boat in the Southern Ocean. I got seasick, my food didn’t fit, and above all, it was very difficult to raise the net. The money I received on the boat for the whole month was 550,000 won. The Koreans I worked with seemed to get much more, but I was satisfied. Because he was a foreigner.
But after a few months, my body didn’t listen. When I told the boss that I was sick, he brought me a body paste and told me to go to the hospital later because I am busy right now. We couldn’t stand the pain, so we consulted the training management company that took care of us. Then he told me to be patient. Otherwise, you will become an illegal immigrant. Until then, I had no idea how terrifying the word “illegal alien” was.
From then on, I followed my older brother, who had come first, and wandered around construction sites across the country. It was easier than boating, and it was nice to be able to get more money and send it back to my hometown.
It was two years ago when I was working at the construction site of an apartment building in Cheongju. After lunchtime and just starting work in the afternoon, an illegal immigrant crackdown team came in. Without realizing it, I ran outside to escape. I jumped from the 3rd floor. I think I was thinking of my son who had just entered college. His right leg and arm were broken and he was unable to move. The Immigration Office staff disappeared leaving behind the words ‘It’s your responsibility because you jumped off’. Thank you for not holding me and letting me go.
I went to the hospital and underwent surgery, but it was not cured and I had to limp. Because there was no medical insurance, the hospital bills exceeded 10 million won. I borrowed it from a friend, paid close to 10 million won in hospital bills, and the rest was reduced by the hospital, so I was able to leave the hospital.
Although he had a disability in his leg, he could not return to his hometown after spending all the money he had earned over the past few years for hospital bills. I had a hard time getting chores at the construction site, but I didn’t get paid. I waited for three months, but there was no sign of giving, so I said I would report it to the Ministry of Labor, but my employer threatened to report me as an illegal alien to the Immigration Department. It was embarrassing, but I didn’t know how to quit and left.
Then I got to work in the boiler room of a fish farm off the coast of Yeosu. The waste gas was so bad that Koreans could not survive for a few days even if they gave them 3 million won. I worked for 19 months. It seems that I have lived a very lonely life. Thinking about it now, it’s so sad. I was able to put up with the thoughts of my family in my hometown. However, it was difficult to bear the delayed salary. The overdue salary was over 700,000 won. There was nowhere to complain. So, I went to the immigration office and told him to get my salary. Instead, I had to be locked up in a shelter. I was an illegal alien.
Illegal immigrants are criminals. You must be locked up in a cage and under 24-hour surveillance. I could stand it. No, I couldn’t sleep comfortably even one night, lest the crackdown team would come, but there was a more comfortable corner. However, I was angry at the attitude of the immigration officers who kept saying ‘I don’t know or later’ when I asked anyone what happened to the unpaid salary. I wanted to be treated like a person.
I don’t know how the fire started. When I woke up to the noise, it was already full of smoke and it was hard to breathe. They shouted to open the door, but instead of opening the door, they just sprayed fire extinguishers from afar. We were not people. People hung from bathroom vents. I ran too, but the hole was too small to be dim.
It’s too cold here right now. I miss my warm wife so much. But I am an illegal immigrant. Having to freeze and hold my breath, I am only an illegal alien, not a person.
# By collecting the Yeosu disaster and counseling cases, I drew a picture of the reality that illegal migrant workers in Korea have to live with. In general, the word undocumented migrant worker is used instead of the word illegal immigrant. Because being an illegal immigrant can take your life.