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May 18 Academy Reflections

The May 18 Memorial Foundation: Spreading the May 18 Spirit Worldwide Through the May 18 Academy

Shahnawaz is working as an international staff member with the May 18 Memorial Foundation, and his areas of interests are human rights, democratization, and peace building. He also completed his law degree in Pakistan and earned an MA in Human Rights and Democratisation from Mahidol University of Thailand. Shahnawaz also worked with refugees and IDPs, and on issues such as gender rights, election observation, rule of law, and good governance in Pakistan.
The May 18 Memorial Foundation has been annually organizing the May 18 Academy for “Young Human Rights Defenders” in Gwangju, South Korea. This year’s theme of the May 18 Academy was "Politics and Economy of Refugees," and a total of fifteen human rights defenders from fourteen countries participated. The two-week course was initiated in 2004. This year, the May 18 Academy was held from August 23 – September 3, and participants stayed at the 518 Education Center in Gwangju most days, including three days on Jeju Island, South Korea.

Welcome Ceremony of the 2019 May 18 Academy in Gwangju

From the very first day, the program was designed to expose the participants to the background, history, trends, and challenges faced by refugees in Asia and worldwide. In 2019, the May 18 Academy was launched with a silent tribute paid to the martyrs of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. The first opening lecture topic was "Why Refugee Issues Matter to Us," and the session was hosted by Mr. Themba Lewis, Secretary General of the Asia Pacific Refugee Network in Thailand. Mr. Lewis discussed the history and concept of refugees, international refugee laws, and global trends regarding refugees in Asia.

At the end of the first session, the participants were divided into three groups to discuss the most pressing forced-displacement issues in their respective countries. The participants energetically discussed refugee-related issues concerning their countries and proposed durable solutions. Later, a welcome dinner was hosted by the May 18 Memorial Foundation for the participants. Mr. Lee Chul-woo, Chairperson of the Foundation, Mr. Cho Jin-tae, Executive Director, and Mr. Lee Gi-bong, Secretary General of the Foundation, welcomed all participants to the 2019 May 18 Academy course.

On August 24, all participants visited the historical sites of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, such as the May 18 National Cemetery, the 518 Archive Center, Geumnam Road, the old Jeollanam-do Provincial Hall, and the 5.18 Democracy Square. Mr. Kim Du-won shared detailed background information and the importance of all these historical sites with the academy participants.

After that, participants joined the session on "Korea's Democratization Movement – Focused on the May 18 Democratic Uprising." The session was overseen by Professor Shin Gyong-gu, Executive Director of the Gwangju International Center, and his session was adequately interactive as he discussed significant historical events that shaped the May 18 Democratic Uprising, the struggles, and the May 18 Spirit. The academy participants actively participated in this session and asked various questions about the history and transitional justice regarding the May 18 Democratic Uprising.

On August 26, participants joined a lecture on "The Relation Between Regionalism/Nationalism and Anti-Refugees Sentiments – Why European Countries Turn into Ultra-rights." This session was held by Professor Lee Yong-il from Daegu National University. He discussed Germany's refugee policy, including German refugee laws, trends, challenges, as well as the refugee crisis in Europe and anti-refugee sentiments. At the end of the session, participants in their traditional dresses were invited to take graduation photos.

The Two-Day Visit to Jeju Island: Learning About the 4.3 Uprising and Refugees

On the 27th of August, the May 18 Academy participants departed to Jeju Island for a two-day visit organized by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation. The Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation staff welcomed all participants at the airport. The participants visited the Peace Park and paid tribute to those who sacrificed their lives during the April 3 Jeju Uprising. After that, participants visited the Jeju Peace Park Cemetery and the Jeju Peace Museum. Ms. Baek Ga-yeoun provided detailed information about the Jeju Peace Museum, the Jeju Massacre that took place on April 3, and about transitional justice. She also shared that the Jeju Massacre resulted in the deaths of nearly 30,000 people in Jeju at the hands of the Korean army in 1948.

On August 28, the academy participants attended a session about the situation regarding Yemeni refugees at the Jeju Migrant Peace Community Center. The Jeju Migrant Center representative shared the detailed scenario of the Yemeni refugees' arrival and the protests by Jeju residents against them. They also shared that most Yemeni refugees were young children who had left their homes due to the conflict in Yemen. Around 545 Yemenis arrived in Jeju, and among them only two received refugee status, while the rest have been living on humanitarian visas in Korea. Presently, the Jeju Migrant Center is providing language courses, accommodations, and social assistance to the Yemeni refugees in Jeju. Participants visited other historical sites in Jeju, such as Neobeunsung and Seopnheul-ri. Participants also enjoyed a Jeju cultural experience by visiting the Manjanggul Cave and Haenyeo.

On August 29, academy participants visited Samsunghyeol, the Jeju Folklore & National History Museum, and Gwandeokjeong Pavilion. Afterwards, the participants arrived back in Gwangju to attend the remaining sessions of the May 18 Academy.

Back in Gwangju to Learn About the Politics of Refugees

On August 30, participants attended a detailed session on the "Role of UNHCR and NGOs to Deal with Refugees Issues." The session was overseen by Professor Gopal K. Siwakoti from Nepal, the Executive Director of INHURED and Ex-Chair of APRRN. He shared information about forced migration and the mandate of the UNHCR about refugees. He also shared the UNHCR's strategy, known as the Global Compact for Refugees, and its scope regarding refugees worldwide.

Following this session, participants joined another session named the “Role of Government in Countries in Relation to Refugee Issues in their Legal System.” The session was conducted by Mr. Lee-il, an attorney at the law firm APIL that is providing assistance to asylum seekers in Korea. Mr. Lee shared refugee statistics in Korea and the Korean RSD process with the participants. He also shared that even though it has a national refugee law, Korea has a very low refugee acceptance rate of only 1%.

On August 31, participants attended the session on "Refugees and a Host Country's Politics and Economy: Revolving Around Rohingya," which was held by Ms. Jessica Olney from BRAC University. She shared the details, challenges, threats, and impacts of Rohingya refugees on their host community, security concerns, and sustainable solutions for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. After finishing lunch, participants again joined in an interactive session on "Refugees and a Host Country’s Politics and Economy: Revolving Around Syrian Refugees" conducted by Ms. Kim Young-ah from Migration to Asia Peace Korea. She shared the details about the social, legal, and immigration issues of Syrian refugees in Korea. She also shared challenges faced by Syrian refugees while living in Korea. In addition, she shared that their NGO is also providing social and legal support to Syrian refugees in Seoul. According to her, most Syrian refugees are living on humanitarian visas in Korea.

The Final Days: Brainstorming About the Issue of Refugees

On September 2, participants joined a group discussion addressing the question, “Should refugees go back to their own countries once it is safe, or should they have the option of staying and requesting residency or citizenship in their new countries?" This session was facilitated by Mr. Evan Jones, a participant of the May 18 Academy who shared a detailed perspective about such issues and requested that participants discuss this issue in groups and respond to it. Later, at the end of the session, participants shared that the refugees’ situation is very challenging, complicated, and problematic, and that it is difficult to respond to such issues. However, all participants agreed that host countries should respect the will and opinion of refugees regarding such issues. Following this, all participants shared group presentations on given topics. Lastly, participants shared their May 18 Academy experience and plans with the rest of the participants.

Certification and Completion of the 2019 May 18 Academy

The May 18 Academy ended with a formal graduation ceremony where all participants were awarded an Academy Completion Certificate, after which they watched an activity video. Finally, the May 18 Academy ended with a farewell speech by Ms. You In-rae, Director of the International Affairs Department. To wrap things up, all participants enjoyed a delicious farewell buffet lunch.

About the May 18 Academy

The May 18 Academy is an intensive educational program for human rights and democracy activists from Asia and Africa. Since its inception in 2004, over 308 NGO workers and activists from over 53 countries have participated in and graduated from the program. Every year, the foundation selects around 15–20 invitees and immerses them in study trips in Gwangju and other cities and introduces them to different Korean organizations and scholars in the fields of human rights and democracy. The two-week workshop proved to be fruitful and successful in its aim to gather together human rights advocates and activists who are passionate about defending human rights and democracy in their countries.