The Invisible Marriage-based Migrant Women Who Were Deported

Why Did They Return to Their Home Countries?

Huh-oh Young-sook | 기사입력 2020/11/16 [20:34]

The Invisible Marriage-based Migrant Women Who Were Deported

Why Did They Return to Their Home Countries?

Huh-oh Young-sook | 입력 : 2020/11/16 [20:34]

*From the editor: “Meeting the Migrant Women That Returned” series is sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund. The writer of this article, Huh-oh Young-sook, is a representative of the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea.


I met L in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. L had married a Korean man through an international marriage agency and suffered physical violence from him on a daily basis. Her husband would rape her after beating her. She returned to the Philippines to escape.


In the Philippines, L filed a lawsuit against her husband regarding the physical violence and won the case. The Philippine court ruled that her husband would be arrested as soon as he entered the Philippines. His husband obviously never came to the Philippines, and thus never was punished. L wanted him to face the charges and receive punishment. So she travelled all the way to Manila [from her hometown] to meet our investigation team and receive help. 


However, it was impossible to file a lawsuit in Korea regarding the domestic violence and marital rape because the only information about her husband that she remembered was his romanized name. She could not spell his name in Korean characters nor remember the address at which she used to live with him. Since we couldn’t figure out who her husband was, we were unable to even reach him, let alone file a lawsuit against him.


▲ We visited the Filipino women’s organization “Gabriela” and had conversations regarding migrant women who returned to their home countries and the realities they face. Gabriela believes that sexual discrimination and violence are not just individuals’ issues but systematic ones. They are actively organizing and fighting against them.


Women Who Got Kicked Out by Korean Society


At the time, the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea’s investigation team that I was part of was visiting the Philippines to understand the local situation of the female marriage migrants who choose to move to Korea. Going to observe the information session for women who were about to marry Korean men and move to Korea, I had no idea that I would meet women who once migrated to Korea and returned back home.


Among the women I had encountered at shelters for migrant women, there had been some who had been forced to return home, but it was when I first met L, 10 years ago, that I really felt the full weight of the issue of migrant women who left.


Ever since then, whenever I have visited the Asian countries which these women are from, I have heard stories of women who had returned back home after moving to Korea, though the target of our investigation was not migrant women who had returned. When they were in situations in which they couldn’t enter Korea but needed to complete the lawsuit process, we took over to provide support for them as well. The majority of those women who had returned to their countries were basically “thrown out” by Korean society.


I will refer to those who returned to their home countries due to various circumstances after entering Korea through marrying Korean men as ‘migrant women who left.’ While these migrant women who left were always in my mind as an unresolved issue, the Vietnamese woman’s case in Jeonju became the starting point to really plan and introduce their stories. There is a long, complicated journey involved in this case.


It was the summer of 2014 when I first heard about the case. It was a rape case against the woman’s husband’s stepfather. The fact of the case itself was shocking, and its contents were complicated.


The woman involved in this case was from a minority ethnic group in Vietnam. Before she migrated to Korea, she was kidnapped and forced into marriage in her hometown and gave birth at the age of 14. She then left her hometown. When she became an adult, she married a Korean man, but from the beginning of the marriage she was sexually assaulted by his stepfather. When she went to a shelter to escape the sexual assault, her husband filed for an annulment, claiming that she didn’t hadn’t told him about her child in Vietnam. Despite appealing to the Supreme Court twice, the annulment was ultimately approved and the woman had no choice but to leave Korea.


▲ October 17th, 2018. I’m greeting those who came to the “Analysis of Harm Caused by Sexual Violence Against Migrant Women and Improvement Plans for Policies Ensuring Their Right to Stay” panel discussion organized by the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea, the office of National Assemblymember Jung Chounsook, and the National Migrant Women’s Shelter Council. ©Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea


Korea’s Reality Reflected in the Trial Results of the Jeonju Case


To be honest, it is very difficult to summarize the characteristics of these cases involving migrant women. This case was also extremely complicated to explain, and thus was difficult to even give a proper name. So the organizers who supported this woman called it “the Jeonju case”.


We were determined to take action by organizing across the country and proceeded in many different ways. Our actions included providing direct support to the woman, forming a legal team, creating support groups across the country, and visiting her hometown in Vietnam to film evidenciary materials to submit to the court. The film director appeared in court as a witness as well. Not only that, we held press conferences and one-person demonstrations in front of the Jeonju District Court, attended court proceedings as a group, hosted panel discussions, and organized petitions involving countless people. There were nearly 2500 copies of petitions collected from all over the country expressing support for the Vietnamese woman going through such a horrible situation. Piled up on the judge’s desk, they almost hid his face.


However, she still had to leave Korea. Our joy from the appellate trial, at which the Supreme Court ruled that it is difficult to cancel a marriage due to simply not informing about the past childbirth and sent the case back down to a high court for retrial, did not last long. We lost the retrial and the Supreme Court refused to hear our appeal, dismissing the case at last.


Due to the annulment, it was impossible for the woman to keep her visa, so she ‘chose’ to go back to Vietnam. She was mentally and physically exhausted from the years-long court case and thought it would be too hard to go through another set of trials for her immigration status. The support team respected her decision and she left for Vietnam on June 22nd, 2017, with a simple send-off.


Even after she left for Vietnam, she continued to stay in my mind. This woman who experienced sexual assault both in Korea and Vietnam was “thrown out” because she didn’t meet the marriage visa’s immigration requirements, after going through the punishment of annulment. Does Korean society have no responsibility for this woman? Is it enough to just provide information on Korean language classes for these marriage-based migrant women to adjust well in the Korean society? How many women have returned to their home countries after moving to Korea for marriage? Why did they leave?


I wanted to point out how Korean society systematically forces migrant women who don’t (can’t) maintain their marriages with Korean men to return to their home countries. So the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea started the ‘The Migrant Women That Left Project.’ We wanted to understand the departing migrant women’s stories at least on the most basic level. We will publish the stories of the women we met in series.


The Stories of Women Who Have No Choice but to Return to Their Home Countries


Let’s examine the institutional context that causes these women to leave. Marriage between Korean men and women from other Asian countries began to surge in the 2000s. 


▲ “Marriages between Koreans and Foreigners” Source: KOSIS National Statistics Portal ( Reconstituted from ‘Marriage with Foreigners’


As we can see in the “Marriage between Koreans and Foreigners” statistics, the artificial factor of commercial intermarriage brokerage agency was involved in marriages between Korean men and foreign women. A significant and distinct characteristic of a marriage between a Korean man and a woman from another Asian country is that it revolves around the maintenance of the male-centric, patriarchal family system. The policies regarding marriage-based migrant women’s status and naturalization reflect this reality. The stability of the women’s status and their naturalization process depend on whether they give birth and raise children in Korea or not.


A foreigner married to a Korean citizen will be issued an F6 visa that is classified under marriage immigration. One can stay for up to 3 years on this visa before needing to renew it. However, the visa doesn’t automatically guarantee a marriage-based migrant woman to receive the maximum length of 3 years. This is only allowed if she maintains the marriage with her Korean spouse and gives birth to and raises children.


▲ Classification Standards of Codes Regarding Foreigner Status (Source: Ministry of Justice Korea Immigration Service, Information Manual April 2020 [translation by this article’s translator])


The Ministry of Justice administers the F-6 visa by subdividing it into 3 different types depending on the marriage migrant’s marriage status. Just the fact that it is managed in such a way can considerably violate the marriage migrants’ privacy and rights. One must maintain a marriage relationship with a Korean citizen (F-6-1) or must be raising a child(ren) of a Korean citizen (if not maintaining a marriage relationship with a Korean citizen). If neither is the case, one must prove that the marriage relationship was terminated due to a cause that is not one’s responsibility.


It is not easy for migrant women who have been widowed or divorced without children to stay in Korea. If divorced, they must be able to legally prove that they didn’t cause the divorce. Thus for marriage-based migrants, even when they are able to divorce by mutual agreement, they must process it through court trials. The statistics below show that trial-based divorces [rather than divorces through mutual agreement] are twice as common in in multicultural marriage relationships as they are in those those between two Korean citizens.


▲ 2018 From the “Multicultural Population Trends Statistics” (Source: National Statistical Office, 2019)


According to a study by Doctor Kim Isun of the Korean Women’s Development Institute and her team (Kim Isun et. al., 2010), a divorced migrant woman is in effect qualified to continue residing in Korea only when it is specified in a court ruling that her spouse was responsible for the termination of their marriage. When a marriage-based migrant woman desires Korean residence as well as a divorce, she must go through the process of court trial even when she could simply come to an agreement with her spouse. The rapid increase of trial-based divorce in multicultural marriages can be interpreted as the result of the need to secure residence qualifications.


Even with all this effort, or without it because they were not aware [of all the complexities ], marriage-based migrants may have to return to their countries or stay as undocumented migrants. According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of those who entered Korea after marrying Korean citizens and then became undocumented was 1,433 in 2016, 1,334 in 2017, 1,161 in 2019, and 923 in 2019.


▲ Marriage-based Immigration (F-6) Visa Section of the Ministry of Justice’s ‘New Occurrence of and Trends in Registered Foreigners’ Illegal Residence’ (Source: Ministry of Justice Korea Immigration Service, “Immigration Service Policy December 2019 Monthly Statistical Report”)


How will Korean Society Respond to Their Requests?


In conclusion, marriage-based migrant women are systematically forced to return to their home countries against their will due to unrenewed visas. Every year, over a thousand women are unable to extend their legal residence status. Whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, they are highly likely to return to their home countries because they are not qualified for residence. We cannot confirm the actual number because there is no separate statistics for them.


Each year, migrant women’s shelters around the country provide support for migrant women to leave; there were 56 such cases in 2015, 48 in 2016, 78 in 2017, and 79 in 2018. This means that at least 50-80 women per year have been returning involuntarily  [because if they wanted to leave, they probably would not have gone to a shelter first] to their home countries even after being physically assaulted.


The fundamental reason that migrant women to return to their countries is the structure that prohibits residence if they get divorced without children or if they cannot prove that their divorce was not their responsibility. It is also true that they might ‘choose’ to go back because there is no support network for a single (foreign) parent to raise children alone in Korea.


The series of stories that will be published are the realities of migrant women that our project team met in the Philippines, Mongolia, and Thailand, who had returned home. Among the women that returned exist some who weren’t kicked out. There are a few cases of women voluntarily planning to leave. Even after our on-site investigations, we are continuing to provide follow-up consultations when the women need Korea-based support.


We hope that this series will expose the realities of migrant women who returned to their countries, which is an unfamiliar topic in Korea. Moreover, we hope that this will be an opportunity for Korea as a society to seek ways to respond to migrant women that have left, the number of which will only continue to grow with the current immigration system.


By Huh-oh Young-sook

Translated by Seung-a Han


*Original Article:


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