In 2018, Korea received 70 000 new immigrants on a long-term or permanent basis (including changes of status), 6.3% more than in 2017. This figure comprises 0.9% labour migrants, 20% family members (including accompanying family) and 0.9% humanitarian migrants. Around 35 000 permits were issued to tertiary-level international students and 125 000 to temporary and seasonal labour migrants.

China, Thailand and Viet Nam were the top three nationalities of newcomers in 2018. Among the top 15 countries of origin, China registered the strongest increase (12 000) and Mongolia the largest decrease (-1 600) in flows to Korea compared to the previous year.

In 2019, the number of first asylum applicants decreased by -4.4%, to reach around 15 000. The majority of applicants came from Russia (2 800), Kazakhstan (2 200) and China (2000). The largest increase since 2018 concerned nationals of Russia (+900) and the largest decrease nationals of Egypt (- 800). Of the 8 300 decisions taken in 2019, 2.6% were positive.

The visa rules for specialised workers (E-7) changed in March 2019 in order to attract international talent and to support small and medium enterprises struggling with labour shortages. The visa is mainly for professional and semi-professional jobs. The quota was increased and some of the criteria changed. In order to ensure the integrity of the programme, applicants for the E-7 Visa now need to annotate or legalize their work experience certificates and educational degree certificates.

The student visa scheme was also revised in March 2019. Stricter conditions will be applied to Korean language instructors. Students from over 20 countries will have to submit language test scores in English and in some cases in Korean. These changes are meant to address the recent increase in international students who overstay their visas, the number doubling from 2015 to 2018. Furthermore, to discourage international students from working illegally, they will be allowed to work for manufacturing businesses if they pass a Korean language test.

From July 2019, all foreign nationals living in Korea for six months and over have to subscribe to the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS). Foreign students were granted a waiver from mandatory registration until March 2021. However, immigrants who have defaulted on their payments to the NHIS will be able to renew their visas for reduced periods only.

The New Illegal Resident Reduction Plan was presented in December 2019. This programme is an extension to the Voluntary Departure Programme, which fights illegal employment and irregular immigration. Irregular immigrants who voluntarily leave Korea by end of June 2020 face reduced, or cancelled, fines for overstay and are able to apply again for a visa to Korea from the country of origin after a cooling period. The overstay fines and cooling periods depend on when the immigrant leaves Korea. Immigrants who leave before the end of March face no fines and may reapply for a visa sooner than those leaving between April and June.

The Plan applies also to immigrants illegally employed in small and medium entreprises or whose employment does not comply with their E-9 or H-2 visa rules. A similar incentive scheme for employers was also put in place. For example, if the immigrant is irregularly employed under a E-9 visa and both the employer and immigrant applied for voluntary return before end of March 2020, the employer faces a reduced fine.

A MoU was signed between Korea and Thailand in November 2019 to prevent illegal stay and employment. Irregular immigrants and employment brokers will be subject to legal consequences also in Thailand.

Exceptional measures were put in place during the COVID-19 crisis and are updated regularly. Immigration contact centres were available 24/7 to provide guidance on infection prevention and testing was made available to all foreign resident and irregular migrants at no cost. Visas for registered foreigners and overseas Koreans were automatically extended until end of April 2020 and immigrants who overstayed because of quarantine requirements were not penalised. All short-term visas already issued were suspended and new visas were issued only if the applicant could submit a medical diagnosis certificate and would commit to self-quarantine. Visa-waiver and visa free entry programmes were suspended on a reciprocal basis. Furthermore, from 1 June 2020, long-term stayers, with some exceptions, who wish to exit and re-enter Korea need to apply for a re-entry permit before leaving the country and submit a medical diagnosis certificate for re-entry.

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