Marriage-based Migrants Who Cross the Borders Need a Shoulder to Cry On

“Meeting the Migrant Women that Left” An Interview with Hissik Bayat from Mongolia’s Gender Equality Center

Han Kuk-yeom | 기사입력 2020/12/08 [01:18]

Marriage-based Migrants Who Cross the Borders Need a Shoulder to Cry On

“Meeting the Migrant Women that Left” An Interview with Hissik Bayat from Mongolia’s Gender Equality Center

Han Kuk-yeom | 입력 : 2020/12/08 [01:18]

*This series on women who came to Korea through marrying Korean men and left, “Meeting the Migrant Women that Left,” is sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


Do Migrant Women Who Returned to their Home Countries Have Shoulders to Cry On?


When you experience hardships or go through rough patches in life, you need a shoulder to cry on. After meeting many different Asian women who had come to Korea through marriage but returned to their home countries for various reasons, I was wondering if they had someone besides their families and relatives to lean on.


In Korea, there are a number of organizations, such as the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea or Multicultural Family Support Centers, that migrant women can receive help from while living in Korea. But when these women return to their home countries and go through a difficult time of adjustments, where can they receive support?


In order to find out, our research team visited three different organizations that support women [in Mongolia]: the Human Rights and Women Center for Human Trafficking Prevention, the Violence Prevention Center, and the Gender Equality Center. Among the three, the Gender Equality Center was the one most actively responding to migration cases involving human rights violations or human trafficking.


▲ A view in Mongolia. The Gender Equality Center of Mongolia is also working on a human trafficking prevention projects in the areas close to China. ©Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea


The Gender Equality Center of Mongolia primarily supports victims of sexual violence but also works to against fight human trafficking that takes place around the areas bordering China. Recently, they’ve been working on child sex trade prevention projects commissioned by the Mongolian Ministry of Health and Welfare as a part of the Korean government’s development cooperation initiative.


Above all, the Gender Equality Center—with the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s support—used to host an education program for prospective marriage-based migrants to help them prepare their new lives in Korea. It was also here where women who returned to Mongolia—or more accurately, got kicked out of Korea came for help.


‘Prospective Marriage Migrant Program’ Supported by the Korean Government Suspended in 2017


In the past decade, with the increase of multicultural marriages in Korea, the vulnerable situations faced by marriage-based migrant women have come to light. In 2007, Huyen Mai, a Vietnamese woman, was murdered by her Korean husband within a month of her arrival in Korea. In the wake of this incident, the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family implemented [orientation-like] education programs around Asian countries in 2008 to decrease the violence and human rights violations occurring within multicultural marriages.


The Korean government coined the term ‘prospective marriage migrant’ to refer to a foreigner who has married a Korean citizen in the foreigner’s native country and is waiting for their visa to be approved by the Korean embassy. The Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was hosting programs for these prospective marriage migrants, teaching them different cultures and laws that they should know in order to live in Korea. 


The ministry’s intention for this initiative is well illustrated in the statement they announced at the program kickoff for Vietnamese prospective marriage migrants:


“[The program] will help prospective marriage migrants as well as other Vietnamese women with stable migration and strengthening of capacities to prepare [for their new lives in Korea]. It will do so by providing accurate information on the issues occurring within international marriages that are human trafficking-like in nature, on Korean society’s culture and language, and on various support systems available to them.”


These education programs primarily began in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Mongolia. In Mongolia, the Gender Equality Center was commissioned to host the program. In this program, the prospective marriage migrants were informed of the number (1577-1366) to call if they experienced domestic violence by their spouses.


However, in 2017, the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family suspended the program in Mongolia.  It seems like the issue of financial efficiency [of the program] was questioned, with the number of marriage-based migrant women too low in comparison to the program’s budget.


Our research team visited the Gender Equality Center and had a conversation with Hissik Bayat, who has over ten years of experience in the organization’s management. Bayat told us that despite the fact that the official education programs are unavailable due to the suspension of the Korean government’s support, the organization is continuing to support the women who have been coming for help. The Gender Equality Center created an affiliated organization, ‘Phone Call of Faith’ to counsel these women, but it is currently facing limitations due to a budgetary deficit.


An Interview with Hissik Bayat from the Gender Equality Center of Mongolia


According to activist Hissik Bayat, up until 2007, around 500-600 Mongolians got married to Koreans and migrated to Korea annually. She also mentioned that 90% of international marriages in Mongolia in that time were with Koreans. Even now, Koreans make up the largest percentage among foreigners that Mongolians marry.


However, from when the education programs supported by the Korean government began in 2008 up until 2017, the international marriage rate rapidly decreased. According to the statistics, by 2017 only 80 Mongolians were getting married to Koreans annually.


▲ We interviewed the activists at the Gender Equality Center of Mongolia. They have been counseling migrant women through their affiliated organization, ‘Phone Call of Faith.’ ©Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea


What’s the reason behind Mongolian women choosing to marry Korean men?


“In the early 2000s when the Korean Wave began because of TV dramas, many people decided to migrate through marriage, thinking, ‘I would like to live in Korea.’ It was actually not always for financial reasons; there were social issues too. Although Mongolia is [geographically] closer to China, due to their historical relationship, Mongolians are reluctant about [getting married to] Chinese people and often prefer Koreans. Moreover, there are many different ways for Mongolians to migrate to Korea besides through marriage, such as through studying, working, and traveling.”


How’s the current status of marriage migration different from that of the early times?


“Due to economic growth in Mongolia, the number of international marriages has been decreasing. Recently, however, it seems to be increasing again due to a low employment rate. International marriage rates in Mongolia are also tied to the fact that single women in their 30-40s are increasing. In Mongolia, generally, women’s education levels are higher than men’s. This is another reason that Mongolian women don’t get married easily. Moreover, due to many Mongolian men migrating abroad [for work], the pool these women can choose from is quite small. Hence the phenomenon of women in their 30-40s choosing international marriage happens.


Mongolians particularly marry Koreans often. It is so common that at least one of your friends or relatives is married to a Korean. Through this network, women meet other Korean men. It’s an open door. The recent increase of international marriages with Koreans actually has been taking place mostly in Ulaanbaatar. Since Ulaanbaatar is a city, there’s a lot of information circulating. Women in Ulaanbaatar are aware of Korea and many of them wish to marry Koreans.”


What’s the process like for a Mongolian woman to marry a Korean man?


“Marriage through a brokerage business is definitely the trend. There are people who marry Koreans by meeting them in Korea during their visits, but most of the marriages take place through brokers. Despite the fact that a marriage brokerage business is illegal in Mongolia, it is nonetheless extremely active. Also, despite the fact that advertising about international marriages is illegal, they advertise in newspapers. For instance, if you see a small blurb that says, ‘Korean man, age (00),’ and call the number, it is actually the brokers soliciting instead of actual Korean men.


On the other hand, Mongolian women who’re married to Korean men will often introduce Koreans they know to their Mongolian friends. However, when fraud or violence occurs after they arrange these dates, they do not take responsibility. If you ask them, ‘Why would you introduce someone like him?’ they say, ‘You’re the one who chose him’ and avoid any responsibility.”


I’m curious whether the parties involved in the international marriage process face charges or fines since international marriage through a brokerage business is illegal in Mongolia.


“In order [for the brokerage firms] to face charges or fines, the victim needs to prove how they’ve been harmed by the brokerage firm. But in reality, even if these victims report, there is no solid outcome. The brokerage firms work very discreetly so it’s hard to find any proof.”


▲ A view of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.   ©Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea


What’s Mongolian society’s view of women who returned home?


“Mongolian culture is extremely conservative, so oftentimes women hide the fact that they’re married to Korean men. (One of the women I met in the past didn’t even tell her own father that she was going to Korea for marriage; instead she told him she was going for work.) Naturally, these women who return to Mongolia are in even more difficult situations. Their relatives would say, “You married a Korean man. Why did you come back?” and look at them with contempt.


This negative view towards women who married foreigners also becomes a stumbling block for the counseling process. Women only start talking about their stories [honestly] when we remind them that they need to tell us everything in order for us to help them.”


What kind of issues do those women coming to ‘Phone Call of Faith’ wish to receive counseling about?


“The most common request is about divorce. Whenever I meet and counsel them, their stories are all very complex and diverse. Moreover, there are often women with children; these cases are far too complicated for ‘Phone Call of Faith’ to handle. If you look at the 2014 and 2015 statistics of the women that returned [to Mongolia], there are both women who got divorced and women who wanted to get divorced but couldn’t.


The issues these women who have returned face are extremely serious. There are many women who couldn’t get divorced even after 10, 20 years. For instance, for a woman who fled from her Korean husband due to issues like domestic violence, there’s a plethora of difficulties to get officially divorced.  She probably has insufficient information about her husband [for the divorce process], and even if she does have the information, her husband will request money when she asks him for a divorce.


We’ve been searching for ways to support those who come to the Gender Equality Center for help, but it’s been difficult since there are no connections with Korea anymore, due to the suspension of education programs [hosted by the Korean government]. We are wondering if there’s a way to receive a family relations certificate or marriage certificate from Korea to confirm these marriages, since this is the documentation we need to help these women.


When we worked with the Korean government’s support, they processed all the necessary paperwork such as marriage certificates or family relations certificates for us. But with the suspension of programs, there are barely any collaborative projects and it’s difficult to even reach them. We sent some documents to 1577-1366 [the Danuri helpline for marriage immigrants and multicultural families] but it took extremely long to have them processed. So we’re searching for different ways.


Women who experienced domestic violence, women who brought their children to Mongolia but with their children’s status being undocumented… these are some cases among numerous types of cases that we support.”


▲ A Story That No One Knew is a book recording the racial discrimination and violence that migrant women experience in Korea.  (Edited by Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea, published by Spring of May, 2018)


There are many women that return to their home countries without officially getting divorced from their Korean husbands. Why is that?


“There are numerous reasons for Mongolian women not getting officially divorced before leaving Korea. Since most of them are not familiar with the legal system, they often think their return to Mongolia will automatically grant them the divorced status. Many of them find out that their marriages haven’t been terminated only after attempting to register for marriage with  new spouses in Mongolia. There was also a case where a Mongolian woman that came back had to deal with a lot of issues due to her previous husband in Korea reporting her as deceased.


In order to get divorced in Mongolia, both husband and wife need to be present. If the spouse is abroad, one needs to bring the divorce confirmation and process it in the National Center for Registration of Information. Most people are unaware of this legal system in Mongolia, and even more so of the legal system in Korea. 


Recently, due to the increased visa restrictions in Korea, international marriage rates decreased. [With the increased restrictions, t]he Korean citizen must be living at least over poverty level and have housing secured. The foreigner needs to speak basic Korean. So for a Mongolian woman to receive a Korean marriage-based visa, she needs to know some basic Korean. How does a prospective marriage migrant handle this issue?


“I think those women who want to marry Korean men often go to Ulaanbaatar University or Korean language schools. Ironically, even though the marriage rate with Koreans has decreased due to Korea’s strict visa policies, the number of people who come to our center to consult on international marriage has increased. Because it is legally required for a foreigner to know basic Korean in order to marry a Korean citizen, there’s an increase of Mongolians who have already been married to Koreans but cannot receive a visa due to their insufficient Korean level.


A woman I met once was studying Korean in the Ulaanbaatar University in order to get married to a Korean man. Her husband was waiting in Korea but she continued to fail the basic level Korean exam. She was in great despair.


Even this very morning, I had a call from a woman telling me that she’s already married to a Korean man and they’ve registered their marriage in Korea. She was inquiring about what she needs to prepare in order to move to Korea. I direct women like her to 1577-1366 but it seems like their issues won’t be solved efficiently. It’s a shame.”


For the Lives of Women Crossing the Borders, We Need a ‘Bridge” between the Nations


After listening to the conditions that the prospective migrant women and women that returned to Mongolia face, our research team felt the need for a bridge connecting the two nations.


With the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s support for education programs, Mongolian women were able to learn information to adjust well in Korea and also be prepared for dangerous situations. We confirmed that even though the government support is suspended, because of the bridge that once existed, these migrant women had a path to follow.


We also witnessed the potential that solidarity and communication among women’s organizations in the countries of origin, destination, and return has to play a unified role as a bridge that supports these women who are crossing the borders, and preventing them from facing crises. Our research team determined to seek ways to support migrant women living in Korea as well as those who have returned to their home countries, along with Korea’s migrant women support organizations, including the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea. This will be a path to solidarity with women around the world during this period of the feminization of migration caused by the feminization of poverty. 


By Han Kuk-yeom

Translated by: Han Seung-a


*Original article:


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