Seoul lays out new support plans for multicultural families, foreigners

SEOUL - The government announced a set of measures for multicultural families on Tuesday to improve education, eradicate discrimination and support their social and economic participation.

The five-year project that kicks off next year is the second part of the Korean government's policy efforts to harmoniously integrate multiculturalism into traditionally homogenous Korean society. The first phase of the comprehensive multicultural project, started in 2010, ends this year.

The new support measures focus on providing better educational opportunities for children from multicultural families and offering job opportunities for immigrant spouses to help them become part of society.

The government also plans to provide the same level of consultation services and child support programs to families of foreign workers and students. Those who are legally recognised as foreign residents here have been excluded from the government's support programs so far.

"The second part of the comprehensive plan is designed not only for immigrant spouses but also for their families who share different cultures under one roof. (The government) needs to gain public acceptance on the project because it is a must, not a choice, for our society," said Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, who chairs a governmental committee that devised 86 projects under six different categories on multiculturalism for the next five years.

Measures will be introduced to help children from multicultural families better adapt to school. The government will run more preliminary courses to teach them the Korean language and culture before they start regular schooling. There are currently 26 pre-schooling programs named "Rainbow School" for those children but the government plans to build 24 more next year. The government also plans to select and support 300 outstanding students who excel at language, math, science, arts and sports.

The plan comes as many multicultural students experience difficulties in keeping up with school lessons. Many are slower in learning Korean and other courses because one parent may not speak Korean fluently.

To encourage social participation for immigrant spouses, the government plans to provide subsidies to social enterprises that hire them, create more stable jobs in social service sectors, and offer part-time jobs.

Related ministries aim to improve the legal system to eliminate racial and cultural discrimination. Also to promote public awareness on multiculturalism, the government will operate various programs to bridge the cultural divide between ethnic Koreans and members of multicultural families.

School programs to teach students not to discriminate against multicultural children and offer better understanding on different cultural backgrounds will be introduced. Textbooks that include chapters on multiculturalism will also be developed for kindergarten teachers and students in elementary and middle schools.

Clauses banning discrimination against non-native Korean military personnel will be added as well as promoting better understanding on religious minorities such as Muslim and Hindu in the military.

To promote cross-cultural understanding among multicultural families and the society as whole, the government will encourage cable channels to produce and operate programs on multiculturalism and provide programs in different languages.

Additionally, the government will interview mixed couples before they register their marriages in local offices.

"It is to check whether they are willing to get married before signing the paper and get visa," an official said, adding the government will strengthen measures to monitor and punish illegal matchmaking companies for international couples.

The visa process for immigrant spouses will be revised. Immigrant offices will look into the financial status of their Korean partners to see whether they are capable of supporting their family members.

To provide tailored support for multicultural families, the government will also nurture coordinators or social workers specialised in family affairs.

Some critics, however, raised concerns that the government's extensive plan on multiculturalism could turn into reverse discrimination against native Koreans. They argued that the government should clarify how far the support for multicultural families would go and if it will offer welfare benefits equal to other native Koreans at some point.

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