In 2019, Korea received 69 000 new immigrants on a long-term or permanent basis (including changes of status), -2% compared to 2018. This figure comprises 0.9% labour migrants and 21.5% family members (including accompanying family). Around 35 000 permits were issued to tertiary-level international students and 114 000 to temporary and seasonal labour migrants.

China, Viet Nam and Thailand were the top three nationalities of newcomers in 2019. Among the top 15 countries of origin, Uzbekistan registered the strongest increase (7 100) and China the largest decrease (-30 000) in flows to Korea compared to the previous year.

In 2020, the number of first asylum applicants decreased by -56.8%, to reach around 6 700. The majority of applicants came from Russia (1 100), Egypt (700) and Kazakhstan (600). The largest increase since 2019 concerned nationals of Egypt (600) and the largest decrease nationals of Russia (-1 800). Of the 12 000 decisions taken in 2020, 1.2% were positive.

Emigration of Koreans to OECD countries increased by 6% in 2019, to 77 000. Approximately 44% of this group migrated to Japan, 24% to the United States and 8% to Canada.

COVID-19 measures covered many aspects of migration management. Foreign residents who leave the country must apply for a re-entry permit to retain their residence status. From August 2020, non-professional temporary foreign workers holding H-2 or E-9 visas who were unable to depart at the end of their maximum work period (36 or 58 months) were allowed to work in farming and fishing for up to five months and to receive a loan against their Departure Guarantee Insurance. E-9 workers who were unable to return to their home country at the end of the maximum stay in Korea were allowed to extend their employment period by an additional year. This possibility was included in a Revision in April 2021 of the relevant Act on Employment of Foreign workers.

Borders remain open, although as of April 2021 subject to a PCR test prior to arrival and a 14-day quarantine subject to inspection. Persons without a permanent address in Korea must stay in – and pay for – government-run quarantine facilities. Admission of E-9 workers was restricted in 2021 to 50 persons/day, subject to the same quarantine requirement; the government was operating 420 quarantine rooms for these workers as of April 2021. Until early April the only country from which E-9 workers were admitted was Cambodia. From 6 April 2021, the list of countries from which E-9 workers are admitted was expanded, and the cap on E-9 workers admitted per day was raised to 100 persons a day.

In March 2021, COVID-19 testing was made mandatory for all resident foreigners in many jurisdictions, although this requirement was later restricted to only at-risk foreign residents, primarily labour migrants in crowded conditions.

The annual entry quotas for non-professional temporary workers were reduced slightly from 2020 to 2021. The total number of new workers with the E-9 visa to be admitted in 2021 was set at 52 000, down from 56 000 for the previous years. The decline was primarily in the quota for the manufacturing sector, which was set at 37 700, down 3 000 from the previous year, and in construction, at 1 800, down from 2 300. Due to closure of borders, the number of entering and re-entering E-9 workers fell from 51 400 in 2019 to 6 700 in 2020.

2020 saw the roll-out of the new selection method for E-9 workers to all participating origin countries. The selection method involves an initial round of a Korean language test, now followed by a skills test and an additional optional competency test. Points awarded in the latter can help make up for lower scores in the language and skills test.

In 2021, the Ministry of Employment and Labor introduced new measures to improve the housing conditions of E-9 workers in agriculture and fisheries, almost all of whom live in employer-provided accommodation. Some changes were driven by concern over the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Permits will not be granted to employers who offer unsuitable housing. Workers will be allowed to change employer if offered substandard housing. From July 2021, these measures will be extended to all EPS employers, including those in manufacturing, construction and service. The government intends to reduce the maximum occupancy of shared housing rooms from 15 to eight.

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