Seoul (AsiaNews) - Tanhg Thi Ngoc Mai, 23, comes from Vietnam. She arrived in South Korea about five years ago as part of an illegal "mail-order brides" scheme for South Korean men in rural areas. In fact, she was sold as a slave, something that Fr Maurizio Giorgianni has reported for AsiaNews.
After fleeing an abusive husband, without papers, she met a fellow Vietnamese with whom she began a relationship. However, after a police raid he was deported, whilst she was pregnant.
Her daughter was born two days ago, but they could be expelled from South Korea because she has no money, papers or chance of making a living. Under South Korean law, she also has no right to government financial aid or access to social services.
Her case has shocked the South Korean public. Now, many in the country are asking questions about the fate of migrants from Southeast Asia and China seeking a better life in one of Asia's economic "tigers".
Whether illegal or with a work permit, the number of foreign residents in Korea hovers around two million. However, Catholic sources told AsiaNews that they are probably twice as many.
Migrants came to work in the construction industry, on farms, as caregivers or "comfort wives" for farmers in the country's less developed areas whose women prefer life in the cities.
For South Korean authorities, migrants have little value. As long as they can fend for themselves and are not caught, they can remain. If something happens, they are sent back to their country of origin.
The problem gets worse when they have a child. In 2014, 90 babies were abandoned in Seoul alone, children of migrants left in taxis, trains or in front of hospitals.
Nobody knows what to do with these children. Under the law, they must have at least one Korean parent to get public support, but that is impossible to prove without the parents.
In Mai's case, help came from Global Sarang, a Christian organisation that runs a shelter for migrant women in the capital. But its president, Kim Hae-sung, is not optimistic: their limited funds will not go very far.
Although no official data are available, Kim believes the number of such children is rising, given the growing number of phone calls he receives from individuals, single mother support centres and court judges asking for help.
"One of the calls was from a judge. He was asking if I could take care of a child until the mother's trial was over," Kim said. The mother had been charged with attempting to abandon the baby.
Kim explained that he does not reject any request for accommodation, but the funds at his disposal are limited.
Although South Korea is a signatory to the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of Child, which require members to provide basic medical and educational services to children on their territory, undocumented babies in South Korea do not get these services, because the authorities are not willing to pay for them, and schools and hospitals refuse to offer them.
"We know that the policies don't cover all that are in need," an official from the Welfare Ministry, which handles childcare, told the Korea Times. The fact that the parents violated the law makes it hard for the government to act. "The government, in principle, can't help those who are here illegally. The government services are basically for Koreans."