Surveillance footage reveals shocking treatment of migrant in South Korean detention

There has been widespread outrage after surveillance footage emerged showing a Moroccan man with his wrists and ankles bound while being held in a tiny cell in a migrant detention centre in South Korea. The man’s lawyer – who has spoken out against the treatment of people being held in immigration detention in South Korea – made the footage public on September 29, though it was filmed several months before, on June 10. 

These images, shot on June 10 on a surveillance camera in the Hwaseong detention centre, show a Moroccan national in solitary confinement in South Korea.
These images, shot on June 10 on a surveillance camera in the Hwaseong detention centre, show a Moroccan national in solitary confinement in South Korea. © Observers

The security camera footage shows a man writhing on the floor, his wrists and ankles bound behind his back. His head is covered with protective headgear kept on with tape and cable ties. He is one of the hundreds of undocumented people being held in the Hwaseong immigration detention centre, located about 60 kilometres from Seoul. The back of the man’s t-shirt says “protected foreigner” in Korean, a term used for people in the midst of deportation proceedings. 

The man in the video, who has been referred to as “M” in the South Korean media, is a Moroccan national in his 30s who came to South Korea in October 2017. 

. © Observers

The footage was widely circulated on social media in Morocco. After seeing the footage, the Moroccan embassy in Seoul contacted the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to Moroccan news outlet "Le site info".  


'This is the first case in Korea where videos and photos from the inside have been exposed'

The footage dates from June, but was only made public on September 29 by South Korean refugee rights groups, who say that the treatment shown in the video amounts to torture, as well as a clear violation of the man’s rights.

Hahn-Jae Lee, the Moroccan man’s lawyer, obtained the video and released it to the media, at his client’s request. Lee is part of Duroo, a public interest legal team that assists migrants in South Korea.

Lee said his client reported being “treated like an animal” and had been restrained and locked up in this manner at least six times between April and June 2021, including one time for a period of over four hours.

The lawyer says that there is no justification for binding his client’s feet and wrists as well as using a mask to cover his entire head. According to the centre’s rules, restraints like that can only be used in “exceptional” circumstances to prevent people from hurting themselves.

Hahn-Jae Lee told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about this treatment of migrants:

It is illegal to use equipment in this way. Straps, handcuffs, and head protection are tools that can be used by law, but there is no legal basis for using these tools at the same time or using them by bending the limbs behind the body. Korea is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, and the Convention against Torture has the same effect as the law in Korea. Such measures clearly constitute torture or humiliating treatment in violation of the Convention against Torture.

There was a very similar harassment case last year, and a recommendation for correction has already been issued by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. However, this is the first case in Korea that videos and photos of the inside are directly exposed.

Hwaseong Foreigner Detention Centre is the largest detention centre in Korea. It is also the one most frequently accused of human rights abuse. In particular, it is notorious for its active use of solitary confinement. However, I know that other detention centres are in a similar situation in various human rights violation issues, only with differences in size and degree.

These detention centres where undocumented migrants are housed are just like prisons, according to the Korean NGOs that frequently contact the Ministry of Justice about this issue. Lee explained:

Overcrowding, inadequate food and insufficient medical support are the most continuous problems in the detention centers. Although the Hwaseong Foreigner detention center is a facility where hundreds of people are staying, there is only one doctor in the entire facility.

Basically, asylum seekers, refugees, asylees and children should not be subject to detention for the purpose of deportation. Nevertheless, many of them are facing the possibility of indefinite detention.

There is no upper limit on the detention period. Even if repatriation is not plausible, for example, even if the foreigner has a kid in Korea, or he has unpaid wages here, forced deportation orders are used. If the order is conducted, the one can be detained indefinitely.

NGOs have frequently called out Hwaseong for human rights abuses, including use of solitary confinement. The detention centre claimed that, in this case, the migrant has been placed in an isolation cell after a conflict with officers, even filing a complaint against the victim. Lawyer Hahn-Jae Lee said that the Moroccan national, who is still being detained, hasn’t had any issues since August. Refugee advocacy groups have filed a complaint with the South Korean National Commission for Human Rights and an investigation is underway. A decision is likely to be made in mid-October.  

Up until now, the question of migrant rights has enjoyed little visibility in the country. In 2019, South Korea estimated that there were 360,000 undocumented migrants within its borders, most of them from Asia. There is still very little regulation regarding their rights. People were shocked by a tragedy that took place in February 2021, when a Cambodian woman died of exposure to sub-zero temperatures in the greenhouse where she lived and worked

The arrival of 400 Afghan refugees in September also revived the national debate on refugees. That said, Afghans, admitted as "special contributors", have been met with a more favourable public welcome than a group of 500 asylum seekers from Yemen who arrived in South Korea in 2018. Back then, more than 700,000 people signed a petition against the law aimed at welcoming refugees.