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Korean's refugee status upheld in historic case

Ruling that South Korea's treatment of mentally ill patients amounts to persecution could encourage more claimants

By Richard J. Dalton Jr., Vancouver Sun
June 20, 2009 10:13 AM

Canada has granted refugee status to a mentally ill South Korean woman and her daughter on grounds the treatment of psychiatric patients and family members in their homeland is so shoddy it amounts to persecution.

Mi Sook Oh, 42, initially sought refugee status in Canada by claiming she had been persecuted in her native South Korea by a church representative who had "poisoned everyone against her" and had been arrested and held three times against her will.

People around the world knew about her case and her tormenter had close ties to the Bush administration, she told the refugee board two years ago.

The Immigration and Refugee Board determined she was, in fact, persecuted -- not by a church representative, but by a South Korean health care system that mistreats mentally ill patients.

Oh suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and had been been forced into mental institutions three times in South Korea without medication, the refugee board concluded.

Based on that mistreatment, the board granted Oh refugee status in October.

The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration appealed the decision.

And, last month, a federal judge ruled in favour of Oh.

The case highlights the poor treatment of mentally ill patients in countries such as South Korea.

Documents submitted in the case say Korea illegally and forcefully hospitalizes mentally ill patients, refuses to discharge patients, forges medical records and unreasonably limits patients' correspondence. Patients also suffer frequent violence, Oh's advocates said.

South Koreans with mental illness are treated as an extreme underclass, with one hospital room sleeping 100 women with just 15 mats and no room for personal belongings, according to a letter submitted to the board and written by Daniel Fisher, executive director the National Empowerment Center in Lawrence, Mass.

Oh's 15-year-old daughter also faced difficulties as the child of a mentally ill person in South Korea. So the board granted the daughter refugee status, concluding her basic human rights were violated in South Korea.

Under state care, the daughter wasn't sent to school and had inadequate housing, sleeping on a floor in a room with several other children, according to the refugee board's ruling. No one would tell her where her mother was, and she was afraid, but received no emotional support.

The Oh case opens the door to other mentally ill people from South Korea seeking refugee status in Canada, said Richard Kurland, an immigration and policy analyst and lawyer.

"What's unusual is the precedent that a Korean, female, mentally challenged person is expected to receive such treatment in Korea so as to amount to persecution," he said.

Kurland said the immigration minister appealed the decision to prevent similar future claims. "They likely were concerned about the floodgate potential the case represents," he said.

South Koreans do not require a visa to visit Canada, making it easier to enter and claim refugee status, he said.

The citizenship and immigration minister rarely appeals decisions by the refugee board, and it's even rarer for the minister to lose, Kurland said.

"They rolled the dice, and they lost, and they lost big," he said.

Helen Park, a Department of Justice lawyer who represented the citizenship and immigration minister in the case, seeking to deny Oh refugee status, said the department is usually responding to claimants' appeals, not filing appeals.

She said the appeal hung on one argument: Whether or not Korea provides adequate protection to mentally ill patients.

The minister of immigration's appeal claimed the refugee board had required a standard of "perfect" protection for those who are mentally ill.

The refugee board said South Korea was trying to improve its care for people with mental illness, but still doesn't provide adequate protection.

"The judge said the board's decision was reasonable," Park said.

This decision means Koreans with mental illnesses can become refugees while other potential immigrants with mental illnesses who are seeking residency under categories such as that for skilled workers, could be denied entry if immigration officials determine the mental illness could be too expensive for the health care system or social services, Kurland said.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees in Montreal, said the case does not set a precedent for foreigners using mental illness as a basis for seeking refugee status in Canada.

In fact, in 2007, an Ethiopian woman was granted refugee status in Canada, ruling discrimination against psychiatric patients in the African country amounted to persecution.

Lobat Sadrehashemi, a lawyer for the Pivot Legal LLP who represented Oh, wouldn't comment on the case.

Kwon Jang, consul at the South Korean embassy in Vancouver, said he's familiar with Oh and believes she is mentally ill.

But he said South Korea adequately cares for people with mental illnesses.

"I think the mental ill people are well taken care of in my country - better than in Canada," he said. "So I cannot believe her story."

Oh's story in Vancouver goes back to April 2007, when Oh and her daughter, whom The Sun will not identify as she is a minor, arrived in Canada. They sought refugee status four months later, initially without a lawyer.

At a refugee board hearing in March 2008, Oh testified that a representative of the Full Gospel Church in South Korea had persecuted her.

"Our case is related to American politicians and American religious leaders," she told the board.

"Okay," the refugee official responded. "Now that sounds crazy to me."

Oh said the three middle digits of her social insurance number were the same as her address in South Korea and that licence plates on cars often would have the same three digits. "They are teasing me, you know," she said.

When Oh was told the board wouldn't make its decision immediately, she became agitated and even hit and pushed her daughter, who was trying to calm her.

After the incident, Oh was hospitalized for mental illness and diagnosed with schizophrenia and chronic paranoid delusions. Her daughter was cared for by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Her discharge notice says she remained paranoid but her delusions didn't affect her life "beyond her need to escape the perceived persecution from Korea."

Oh has maintained a blog, misookzoe.blogspot.com, for two years. The most recent entry is brief: "Federal court accepted us as Protected Persons. We won."

[email protected]

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Comment on this story at vancouversun.com/unews
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
Nothing against the person specifically, but doesn't this open the door wide for more claimants who don't get "adequate" medical care at home? Did Canada suddenly become "Democracy's Hospital?" The defense made by comparing this case and the Ethiopian isn't sufficient as well, since Ethiopians need a visa to get here I think.
 

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The Mighty.
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Why not let all Korean mentally ill into Canada? We seem to let anyone come in anyways?
My taxes can still be raised, there's a tiny bit left to squeeze out of me.
:|
 

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Legal immigration is actually very difficult. The ease you refer to is when it comes to "refugees" -that system is f*cked.
 

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"The Ignorant Fool"
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Our courts have sold us out. This is frightening. Suddenly all of us taxpayers are to pay for anyone in the world who does not have "adequate" health care. That is a total travesty of the political refugee concept.
 

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~ Mysterious Entity ~
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But there's a difference between someone not being provided with adequate healthcare and someone being locked up because of descrimination towards those with a certain condition. That really isn't any different than if you were locked up for being a certain race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or having different political or religious beliefs. And if there was a threat of being locked up for those reasons, most would agree the person would deserve refuge.
 

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^ However, to your point, Canada does not take refugees based on other illnesses because they are considered a drain on the tax payer funded medical system. Hence why people (potential immigrants) with cancer (who may not be able to find affordable treatment in their home countries) or AIDS etc. are refused permanent residency (including family members of Canadian citizens). A ruling like this just opens the floodgates and will ultimately lead to even more exploitation of the lax "refugee" criteria to gain entry into Canada.
 

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Proud warmonger
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Legal immigration is actually very difficult. The ease you refer to is when it comes to "refugees" -that system is f*cked.
Yes legal immigration is absolutely awful in Canada, i wish i could just sneak in and stay there forever. I can't believe that Canada does not give out bridging visa to prospective applicants who wish to apply for PR from within the country!
 

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If you had applied legally way back when you first started talking about it, you would have your landed immigrant status by now. You actually have to apply, and wait for it in order to get it. But if you don't get the ball rolling, it can never happen. I know PLENTY of people who have done that and now live here, but you have to be the one to initiate it.
 

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I'm surprised Canada doesn't have a reciprocal Commonweath program. Canadians under 30 can easily live and work in the U.K. for a period of time (and alternatively if your grandparents were citizens of the U.K. you can apply for citizenship quite easily -relatively speaking). And I believe Australia and New Zealand as well (although I may be wrong on this front). But the reverse isn't true.
 

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Although I do feel sorry for this poor woman, she is NOT a refugee.
There are, unfortunatly, millions of people worldwide who are contained in restricted areas due to their mental health...........including Canada. Some due to lack of proper healthcare and some due to the fact that even with medication and health services they simply cannot live in our general society. A sad fact but a fact none the less.

This has set a precedent that every person who lives in a restrictive area due to health is now considered a refugee.

The refugee system is getting completly out of control. Canada should have a complete list of countries where one CANNOT apply for refugee status under any circumstance with no appeal. As soon as you apply you are on tyhe first flight out, no exceptions.

I use to work at the welfare office in Vancouver and I had a refugee claimant..........he was declaring refugee status from........................Sacramento. The thing is that it still took the feds 18 months to get him out of the country. Once i asked him why he was REALLY here and he flatly stated because he needed surgery done which he couldn't
afford.

We still get refugees from Europe. Canada need a sweeping number of countries where we will not accpt refugees from.........Aus/NZ/Jap/S.Kor./Tai/nearly all of S.America, all of Europe { east and west} and India the US with much of S.E. Asia.
In short, with a few exceptions.....only China/Africa/CenAmer/ and some Middle East countries with a couple of other extreme cases and that's it.

The whole system serves no one except those who cheat, lie, and do other assorted criminal acts to get into the country. It is unfair to Canadians having to fund them, legal immigrants who are dutifully in line using the legal system of the country and not cheating, and denies refugee status due to quotos being met yet are REAL refugees fleeing for their lives.
 

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That refugee mess is also 100% of the reason why the USA has substantially tightened up its northern border security in recent years - it is just too easy for someone with bad intentions to get into Canada by claiming some sort of 'refugee' status and it is thus too great of a risk for the USA to ignore.

Fix that refugee mess and there is real likelihood that the USA's border checkpoints will disappear.

Also, didn't a high-ranking Canadian court recently rule that the bad health care service that Canadians themselves receive in some Canadian hospitals violates some part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Mike
 

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"Also, didn't a high-ranking Canadian court recently rule that the bad health care service that Canadians themselves receive in some Canadian hospitals violates some part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?"

That is possible, mgk920, because we have different minimum standards than the USA. Our system is not perfect, and we do have our problems, but we have universal health care up here (unlike the United States) so a much broader swath of people here are covered for medical needs. Too bad a "high ranking American court" wouldn't recognize the fact that the USA spends much more per capita on health care than almost all other Western nations on health care (15.4% of America's GDP, compared to only 9.8% in Canada), yet it is the only western industrialized nation with no Universal Healthcare system. Sadly, only 27.8% of its own citizens are directly covered by the American government for health care. As an experiment, next time you are sick go to any hospital and tell them you have no money, and no private health care, and see what happens.... :(

As we all know, the USA has plenty of people with bad intentions already born and living within their own borders. The benefit of increased border security is it helps keep them out of our country, as well as keeping people out who are seeking free coverage under our system when there is no coverage where they live. :)
 

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~ Mysterious Entity ~
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Although I do feel sorry for this poor woman, she is NOT a refugee.
There are, unfortunatly, millions of people worldwide who are contained in restricted areas due to their mental health...........including Canada. Some due to lack of proper healthcare and some due to the fact that even with medication and health services they simply cannot live in our general society. A sad fact but a fact none the less.
There's no evidence that with proper medication she couldn't live in general society. The issue here isn't that she was forced into confinement due to her mental health, it's that she was forced into confinement (and abused) due to discrimination.

"Documents submitted in the case say Korea illegally and forcefully hospitalizes mentally ill patients, refuses to discharge patients, forges medical records and unreasonably limits patients' correspondence. Patients also suffer frequent violence, Oh's advocates said."

To me this sounds like a human rights violation, which is exactly what the board concluded. Even if a country doesn't have the money to pay for expensive medications or high quality treatment facilities (and I'm skeptical this would be the case with wealthy S.Korea), the people requiring the care need to at least be treated with decency and respect. Whether or not they are capable of living in general society is beside the point.

This has set a precedent that every person who lives in a restrictive area due to health is now considered a refugee.
First of all, if there is no treatment for their condition that would allow them to function in normal society here, there would be no point in allowing them to stay, and second, if someone is mistreated, abused, or discriminated against by their healthcare system, then it's really no different than if it was done by their country's police, military, or secret service, etc. The important thing to remeber here, is that the treatment she received wasn't because the country couldn't afford anything better (simple kindness really isn't that expensive), it's because "South Koreans with mental illness are treated as an extreme underclass."

I understand that as a small country we can't provide a high quality of living to every poor or underpriviliged person in the world, but it find it unfortunate when many people would prefer to base Canada's refuge policies on what's best for Canada, forgetting that the whole point of allowing refugees is to help them.
 

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~ Mysterious Entity ~
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^ However, to your point, Canada does not take refugees based on other illnesses because they are considered a drain on the tax payer funded medical system. Hence why people (potential immigrants) with cancer (who may not be able to find affordable treatment in their home countries) or AIDS etc. are refused permanent residency (including family members of Canadian citizens). A ruling like this just opens the floodgates and will ultimately lead to even more exploitation of the lax "refugee" criteria to gain entry into Canada.
Are you talking about not allowing people to be accepted as refugees if they applied on the basis of inadequate healthcare in their country of origin, or are you saying that if someone applied for refuge for another reason, they would be refused if Canada discovered they have a health problem?
 
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