South Korea has accepted just 164 asylum seekers this year from nearly 6,000 who applied despite coronavirus travel curbs, government data showed.
Immigration is a contentious issue in South Korea, where many pride themselves on ethnic homogeneity, even as its population of 51 million rapidly ages and the labour force shrivels.
The figure of 5,896 applicants for refugee status between January and August was down about 36% from the corresponding period last year, data from the justice ministry showed last week.
Russians topped the list of applicants at nearly 18%, followed by people from Egypt, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and India.
Only about 4% of the 4,019 who completed the screening process were accepted or granted residency for humanitarian reasons, although not recognised as refugees, a rate less than the 6% of 2019 and 16% of 2018, the data showed.
South Korea began accepting refugee applications in 1994 in line with a U.N. refugee convention. The number of asylum seekers has risen sharply since it became the first Asian nation to adopt its own refugee law in 2013, peaking at 16,173 in 2018.
But the government clamped down after a sudden spike in Yemeni arrivals in the southern resort island of Jeju that year stoked fears over a possible rise in crime and other social ills.
Defectors from neighbouring North Korea are not regarded as asylum seekers and automatically receive citizenship.
In Europe, although asylum applications have also plummeted this year amid border closures against the virus, many countries have sheltered hundreds of thousands of refugees stricken by war and poverty.
But few Asian nations, including Japan, have been keen to accept more refugees.
New York-based Human Rights Watch criticised Seoul’s strict refugee policy this year, urging more acceptance and transparency in application reviews.
The justice ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.