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South Korea rights panel probes whether mandated COVID tests for foreigners is discriminatory

South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission confirmed on March 19 it is investigating whether policies adopted by several local governments requiring all foreign workers to be tested for coronavirus are discriminatory.

Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi Province are among a number of local governments that have ordered all foreign workers to be tested, drawing criticism from South Korean lawmakers, university officials, and foreign ambassadors.

On March 18 the French ambassador and the American and European chambers of commerce said they had been told the rules in both areas would soon be at least partially revised.

But on March 19 officials in Seoul told Reuters there was no plan to review the rules, while Gyeonggi noted it had dropped a separate requirement that foreigners test negative before being hired for a job.

Health officials have defended the measures as necessary to blunt a surge in infections among foreign residents, and that the rules are not discriminatory because testing had also been mandated for people who were linked to outbreaks in churches, nightclubs, and other spots.

On March 19 the US Embassy said it had raised concerns with senior level Korean authorities and was advocating strongly for fair and equitable treatment of all US citizens.

The human rights commission, an independent government watchdog, said it had launched an investigation after several complaints, including by the British ambassador, who said the rules were “not fair, they are not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective”.

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Commission chair Choi Young-ae said she was concerned that the policies could lead to discrimination, especially by using demeaning language toward undocumented workers.

“This act has made the word ‘foreigners’ look like ‘those suspected of diagnosis for COVID‘ or ‘criminals who have done something illegal,’ which led to hate comments online,” she said in a statement.

The local governments have said that immigration status would not be checked at the testing centers, and that personal data gathered would only be used for medical purposes.

Seoul National University, one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities, is considering seeking an injunction against the policy if Seoul doesn’t drop it, Koo Min-gyo, dean of student affairs, told Reuters.

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