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African Migrants’​ Transatlantic Route Floods Tiny Costa Rica

In San Jose, Costa Rica
In San Jose, Costa Rica

SAN JOSÉ â€" A troubling new sea-bound migration route has opened up, as some 20,000 migrants from African countries are believed to have flocked to Costa Rica, according to a recently released International Organization for Migration (IOM) report.

La Nación, a daily in the Costa Rican capital of San José, reports that the figure of 20,000 greatly exceeds the estimate of 9,000 made last month by the Organization of American States (OAS), and is set to expand further as people fleeing economic hardship and state repression in Africa seek an alternative to the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

The transatlantic trafficking routes tend to bring African migrants primarily to Brazil, before transiting through South and Central America to reach their final destination: the United States.

The migrants board ships from West African countries like Senegal, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast, or further north from Spain and Portugal, to reach the shores of Colombia and Brazil.

Trafficking routes then take them through Peru and the Andean coast to Panama and ultimately Costa Rica, where they follow the same paths trodden before by refugees from Cuba and violent Central American countries who also traveled north to the U.S.-Mexican border.

"Countries in the region aren't ready for such an influx," Gladys Jiménez, interim director of Costa Rica's Migration Department told La Nación. "Legislation exists to handle regular transit, but not something like this." Regional efforts at tackling an earlier Cuban migration crisis took a hit last November when Nicaragua shut its borders to migrants entering from Costa Rica, but the numbers of African asylum seekers far exceed the Cuban arrivals.

Unlike in its response to the influx of Cubans, when it opened shelters and requested towns and churches to take in some 8,000 refugees, the Costa Rican government now says it will only provide medical attention to African migrants in the country, who arrive by the dozens every day from the Panamanian border. With the small country of 4.8 million people struggling to handle the coming arrivals and with Nicaraguan soldiers shutting the land border to the north, African migrants will be forced to find other ways to make it northward, where the ultimate goal is typically refugee status in the United States.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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