Yiombi Thona, a prominent Congolese refugee activist and human rights educator, talks about the “responsibility crisis” that prevents the world’s nations from meeting their obligations to asylum seekers.
It was an honor to interview Yiombi Thona in 2014 for a special issue of Groove Korea to commemorate the magazine’s 100th edition. The theme was “100 expats who made a difference in Korea.”
Even though the resulting article had to be cut short to fit the tight space, I’m happy to say Yiombi’s human rights work was part of that special issue.
A responsibility crisis
It was Yiombi’s 2013 memoir, “My Name Is Yiombi,” that really put a human face on the global refugee crisis for the South Korean public.
But Yiombi doesn’t like the expression “refugee crisis,” saying it’s really a responsibility crisis. Refugees are nothing new, he pointed out the last time we spoke — they’ve existed since the time of Jesus. Why call it a crisis only now that Europe is “a bit shaken” by an influx of refugees and some Europeans feel threatened?
As his book explains, in 2002 the professor, author, human rights activist and former spy fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after revealing secrets to the opposition party.
Yiombi had discovered secret ties between the country’s leaders and its armed rebels. Foreign countries were benefiting from the bloodshed, and he couldn’t turn a blind eye even though speaking out meant losing everything.
From refugee to global changemaker
He came to Seoul with no money, no papers, and severely limited ability to communicate with the people around him. He was forced to accept dangerous, low-paying, illegal work. He often encountered discrimination. His family had to go into hiding and couldn’t join him in Korea for six years.
But now he lives with his family in Gwangju and is a well-known human rights activist who influences decision-makers in Korea and throughout the world.
He’s met with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, a prime destination for refugees from neighboring countries, to urge more supportive policies for refugees and migrants. As chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, he’s traveled to Geneva, New York City, Hong Kong and beyond. He’s given presentations on refugee rights at the United Nations. He’s also had significant influence on Korea’s domestic refugee policy, having educated many government officials and police officers.
Teaching human rights
The first time we spoke, it was 2014 and I’d taken the KTX train to Gwangju to meet him at his office at Gwangju University, where he helped me gain a better understanding of the mineral wars in his country — wars fueled largely by demand for cellphones.
“For Congo people there is no UN,” he told me that day. He was impatient that the United Nations kept on renewing its “one-year” missions in the country with no real progress, saying the agency seemed uninterested in solving the problems and often took advantage of the local people.
He mentioned how proud he was that his children were fully integrated into Korean society and spoke the language like natives. We also discussed his efforts to educate young people in Gwangju about human rights.
His teaching style at the university was interactive, he said, centering on debates and discussions. His “exams” were interviews, and his courses were very popular with students.
“Even some students who failed,” he added.
At first he needed to coax students to speak, he told me, because they were used to playing a passive role in class. In every class they discussed a human rights issue.
“I am preparing them to be human rights activists,” he said.
Yiombi later went on to found a new graduate program at Chonnam University — “a training program for NGO and human rights activists.” Its first cohort was made up exclusively of international students, and they were gaining a balance of academic knowledge and hands-on experience. That master’s cohort, he told me, would go on to become the program’s first Ph.D. candidates and eventually pursue careers with nongovernmental organizations.
Sharing responsibilities, not burdens
If you’ve ever listened to Yiombi speak, you know what an engaging storyteller he is. During our second interview, two years after the first, he took time between important meetings to speak with me at a coffee shop in Seoul. Refugees and migrants had become hotter issues than ever, and Yiombi had recently traveled to New York City ahead of Global Compact negotiations to deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly.
He got the invitation on extremely short notice, he told me, as he was heading for Mongolia to deliver a speech there on refugee rights. Upon his return, his UN contact urged him to rush to the US Embassy in Seoul and apply for a visa immediately.
At first the embassy staff were unhelpful and told him there was no way he’d get a visa in time. They’d need a month to process it. They knew only his nationality and didn’t realize he’d been elected to speak at the UN.
But soon, once the embassy workers understood the significance of his visit, they expedited the process.
It was 4 p.m., he recalled. “The door was already closed.”
But Yiombi was allowed in despite the late hour.
“I went in and they issued me the visa,” he said.
Once in New York City, he addressed the General Assembly, which was focused on the movement of large populations and was still working toward the recently adopted Global Compact on Refugees.
“I told them, ‘I’m very sorry. I don’t agree to what you call ‘burden sharing.’ We are not burden. Because myself, I’m a refugee. I’m not a burden in Korea. I don’t use any cent of Korean tax money. No single Korean can stand in front of me and say ‘Yiombi, you are using our tax money. … In 16 years, no one. I never get any cent from government.”
He had tax returns to prove that he was contributing to the Korean tax system, he said.
At the UN, Yiombi got a standing ovation.
“This is not burden sharing,” he said. “This is responsibility sharing.”
‘We don’t need endless talk’
Our conversations also covered sexist social conditioning, racist police officers, inept immigration officers, and the struggle for justice led by the Korean survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery. Yiombi supports the survivors, saying their fight is an important human rights issue that has unfortunately been politicized.
Of the efforts to adopt the Global Compact, Yiombi asked, “Do we need another agreement?”
The international community already has many agreements, he explained. What it needs to do is persuade countries that haven’t signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees to do so, and persuade those that have already signed to honor their commitments. Countries that have signed on to the Refugee Protocol have already decided to help people in desperate situations, he pointed out — people who need to flee their own countries because of a war, because of a humanitarian crisis, or because they might be persecuted.
We don’t need endless talk, he said. We don’t need endless political declarations.
Yiombi’s slogan, “Lift them, don’t shift them,” reflects his mission to dispel media stereotypes about refugees and migrants and show how much they benefit the countries that take them in. We discussed the prevalence of fearmongering in Europe, North America and elsewhere and the way that certain pundits perpetuate discrimination and negative attitudes.
“Even in Korea here we have this kind of speech,” he said. “And when you ask in Korea, ‘Can you give me one single name of a refugee who commit crime?’ No one. I ask in Japan, ‘Can you give me in Japan one single name? Not two, one? (Someone with a refugee background) who committed a crime?’ No one.”
Media coverage tends to zero in on isolated cases, he said, while ignoring all the good things migrants and refugees do.
“In Europe it’s the same thing,” he said. When he traveled to Belgium in connection with the Solutions Alliance, one of the international organizations he works with, he pointed out that migrants made up 64 percent of the country’s economically active population — people working for the Belgian economy.
“Sixty-four percent,” he said. He again brought up the Refugee Protocol, which most of the world’s countries had signed, saying the general public seemed unaware of the commitments that were already in place.
“I told them, ‘Why not to burn everything, to cancel everything, no UN, everything, OK? Let us go in anarchy. It cannot work. But if you make principle, you make rule, you make law, please, let’s respect it.’
“Refugees are not criminal. Refugees are not terrorist. Refugees are people with protection needs.”
June 2023 update
Today Yiombi teaches online graduate courses in nongovernmental organization management, human rights risk management, and refugees and immigration. His two latest books are set to be published in English soon — one about the political situation in Congo, and one about how refugees in Korea and Japan are working for change in their countries of origin. The latter book is based on his doctoral thesis.
Two of his children, Jonathan and Patricia, are now in their 20s and have become popular media personalities in Korea. And after all these years overseas, Yiombi is finally planning to go back to Congo if his safety can be assured.
“We can’t estimate the time of our return back home,” he writes in a message. “We are working on it. This can happen anytime.”
Many thanks to Adam Czelusta for permission to reproduce his photograph of Yiombi, to Sunny Kim for introducing us, to Groove’s publisher for permission to reproduce the scanned article, and of course to Yiombi for taking time to speak with me. Read more about Adam Czelusta here.