Volunteering isn’t so simple in Korea
14 January 2007
by Carli Brosseau

If you are a foreigner working in Korea _ and volunteering on the side _ could you be fined, even deported? Don’t laugh. Volunteering may put you in danger.

The law governing these matters is the Immigration Control Act of Korea. The law stipulates that a foreigner must obtain, in advance, permission from the Ministry of Justice for ``activities corresponding to a status of sojourn different from his own.’’

The law applies even to charity activities and volunteer activities, Lee Hye-jeong of Ahnse Law Offices said.

If the law is strictly interpreted, she said, putting on free art performances and even visits to orphanages could be illegal.

Many government workers, including those at the Immigration Bureau, and lawyers that offer services in English, however, have never heard of the rule, let alone a case of its enforcement.

``I have never heard of that situation before,’’ said Danielle Suh, a certified public accountant at Kim & Chang Law Office in Chongno, Seoul.

``These things are often considered on a case-by-case basis, but nobody has come in here asking for services like that.’’

Han Heek-young, who works at the information desk at the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners, had also never heard of non-Koreans getting in trouble for volunteering.

``I’ve never even before thought that it could be illegal,’’ she said.

When she called the Immigration Bureau on Friday, officials would not provide her information if she would not tell the nationality of the inquirer. She said officials said the question was important because foreigners for these purposes are divided into two groups: Chinese and everybody else.

Officials said foreigners were less likely to have problems if their volunteer work was unrelated to their paid work, Han said. For example, English teachers volunteering in kindergartens are likely to be suspected of taking money under the table for English instruction.

When Han spoke to immigration officials on Monday, they told her that foreigners should have no trouble volunteering, as long as no money is exchanged, even to recoup costs.

The officials were referring to the recent questioning by police of nine foreigners in Pusan after they put on a play that drew fire from the Korean press for being critical of Koreans.

The foreigners suspect that they were interrogated by police because of the content of the satirical play, but police say the foreigners were questioned for visa violations.

One of the foreigners questioned reported that during the interrogation police said that poetry readings and volunteer work were also visa violations.

While those involved in the play say they did not make a profit, they did collect 7,000 won per person at the door to pay for expenses. About 150 people saw the show.

The Immigration Bureau dedicated 2005 to cracking down on illegal activities performed by foreigners in Korea, and the push seems to have gained some momentum.

While the number of foreign residents decreased from 750,873 to 747,467 between 2004 and 2005, the number of registered residents as a proportion of the total increased, according to the ministry’s most recent figures. Of those registered, almost half were Chinese.

The forum for immigration information on the bureau’s Web site contains little other than anonymous postings about illegal activities. There are some requests for information by foreigners, but as of Monday there were several unanswered requests.

It is possible to find some information on the Web site about how to register activities, although the information is several clicks away from the homepage.

To register an activity, you must apply to a local or district immigration office with jurisdiction over the area in which you live. The application should be made in person, but could be made by proxy in special cases.

You must have your passport, alien registration card, downloadable application forms, and other documents that pertain to your visa category, which are detailed on the Web site. You also have to pay a 60,000-won fee.

If your application is accepted, you will receive a stamp in your passport and amendments on the back of your alien registration card.

The process is required for each activity that may go ``beyond the current visa status.’’

© The Korea Times

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