Friday, June 29, 2007

Migration in South Korea

This piece from the Japanese paper Asahi on migration in Asia caught my eye:

Asia: S. Korea, Singapore turn birthrate tide with immigration


SEOUL--Declining birthrates are a problem that Japan shares with South Korea and Singapore.

But unlike Japan, which has yet to open its doors widely to immigration, these two countries are welcoming people from elsewhere in Asia to fill the gap.

In South Korea, the main struggle has been felt in depopulated farm and fishing villages.

Now, brides from China and Southeast Asian countries are settling down with local bachelors hoping to raise the next crop of farmers.

In Singapore, the government plans to bring in about 2 million immigrants--or nearly half of the current population--to maintain growth.

The squalling of babies is a welcome sound these days among the roughly 40 households in Guzi village in Jeollabuk-do province in southwestern South Korea.

Rice farmer Paek In Ki, 37, and his Vietnamese wife, Tran Thi Thanh Thuy, 25, welcomed their first child--a girl--in 2004. Their son was born late last year. The couple wed in 2003.

In this traditional farming village, Confucianism still exerts a strong influence. Thanh Thuy cooks up local delicacies to celebrate Confucian events, and she works in the rice paddies and strawberry fields alongside her husband.

"She is now a crucial member of this village," Paek said.

Thanh Thuy says she feels right at home. "The farming and Confucian events are similar to the way I grew up in Vietnam. I don't feel any difference here," she said.

International marriages are on the rise in rural South Korea. According to the Korea National Statistical Office, of about 8,600 farmers, forestry workers and fishermen who got married in 2006, 41 percent got hitched to women from other countries.

Of all South Korean men who married foreign women in 2006, about 11,000 took Vietnamese brides, a 74 percent rise from the previous year. Many marriages were made through brokers.

Not all those matches were love at first sight, but appearance did play a factor.

Paek cited a pragmatic reason for choosing Thanh Thuy. "She looks South Korean, so I thought our children would not face discrimination," he said.

In 2005, the South Korean birthrate--the number of children a woman has in her lifetime--fell to 1.08 children on average. That figure was even lower than Japan's birthrate of 1.26 and ranks among the world's lowest.

Moreover, in rural villages, the gender imbalance is growing wider, in part because of fetal sex selection techniques, similar to those that have led to serious population problems in China and India.

According to Yang Soon Mi, an official of the National Rural Development Institute, illegal prenatal sex selection is rising because of the declining birthrate and a traditional preference for male children.

Some estimates show that, within three years, the male-to-female imbalance will widen to 120 to 100.

The shortage of brides in rural areas has led male villagers to head to cities. That has reduced the work force, and in turn, led to fewer young families and fewer children in the countryside.

However, it is often difficult for women from other cultures to fit in with Korean farm families, leading some to give up and return home in defeat.

The biggest troubles are communicating with their husbands or their mothers-in-law.

According to a support group for foreign women, one woman was rejected by her husband when he discovered that she was sterile. Another woman said that her husband physically abused her when she disobeyed her mother-in-law's dictates.

South Korea's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry now regards immigrant women as important "human resources for farm villages." It is working to make things easier on these Asian brides.

This year, the ministry is training 300 counselors who will teach immigrant women the Korean language or offer advice on common problems. The counselors are being dispatched throughout South Korea's farming villages.

The government is also offering financial assistance to enable the foreign brides to afford trips to their home countries to see the families they left behind.

Most of these marriages were arranged through brokers, which has led some international human rights organizations in the United States and Europe to label them "marriages close to human trafficking."

However, according to Yang, "Foreign women are now indispensable to South Korea's farming villages. They can really improve things, so we should not view them negatively. We need to create ways to help them soon."

In Singapore, meanwhile, a ceremony was held in mid-April at a public hall in the eastern part of the city-state to welcome 91 people who had just been granted Singaporean citizenship. The immigrants were mostly from India, China and Malaysia.

After receiving a citizenship certificate from Deputy Prime Minister Shunmugam Jayakumar, each newcomer placed his or her right hand on their heart and swore, "We, Singaporean citizens, pledge to build a democratic society irrespective of race, language or religion."

Jayakumar congratulated the group, and said that both Singapore's native citizens and its adopted brethren must make efforts to get along.

In March, the Singaporean government said it plans to raise the population from the current 4.5 million to 6.5 million through immigration.

Singapore's birthrate fell to 1.25 per woman in 2006.

Pauline Straughan, an associate professor of medical sociology at the National University of Singapore, cited these reasons for the decline:

・Married couples with higher education have increased, and they spend much money for the education of their children. Thus, they are having fewer children.

・Temporary employment contracts of one to two years are on the rise, leaving would-be mothers unable to afford to become pregnant. That is because maternity leaves could obstruct their promotion.

Straughan noted that, as long as young people have uncertain job prospects, the birthrate will never rebound.

Singapore's increased immigration policy is a desperate measure to retain its prosperity and battle the declining birthrate.

However, hurdles for obtaining permanent residency or citizenship are high, as the main reason for accepting immigrants is economic growth. Preference is given to immigrants who bring with them skills and wealth to contribute to Singapore's future.

Unskilled workers, meanwhile, are unwelcome, in part because of fears of social unrest.

In 2003, the government began granting permanent residence status to individuals who had invested at least S$2 million (about 160 million yen) in the country per person through real estate or stock purchases, among other investments.

Researchers in fields such as information technology or biotechnology are also welcome to apply for permanent residency. This year, the government began issuing working visas that make it easier for highly skilled workers to find employment in Singapore.

But Singapore also imposed strict restrictions on its about 500,000 unskilled immigrant workers, which include maids and construction workers. Such workers can only live in certain areas and are prohibited from marrying people with Singaporean citizenship or permanent residency.

Female temporary workers face deportation if they become pregnant.

In addition, many Singaporean citizens fear competition for jobs could intensify with a rise in immigrants.

"We have to work harder not to lose our jobs. We are too busy working to raise our own children, which is why the birthrate is falling," said a 38-year-old Singaporean man who runs a consulting firm. His wife, 34, is a national library employee.

Each year, 10,000 to 13,000 people become citizens, and about 50,000 people receive permanent residency.

However, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs does not reveal details on their origins, fearing a backlash could worsen diplomatic relations with their home countries, officials said.

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