Asylum seekers find little refuge in Japan

TOKYO —

It’s easy not to notice them: they blend in anonymously with the rest of the foreign faces here. You could be forgiven for not even realizing they exist at all. But refugees and asylum seekers are very much a reality in Japan — and as their numbers increase, the government is coming under fire for its handling of the issue.

Despite being the third largest donor in the world to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Japan admits only a tiny number of asylum seekers compared to other industrialized nations, and often appears reluctant to grant refugee status to those who do come. Damning statistics are bandied about, such as the fact that the country has accepted just 508 refugees from the 7,297 applications made since 1982.

The media doesn’t paint a very flattering picture, either. Many will remember the Dogan and Kazankiran families, Kurdish Turks whose unsuccessful battle to be recognized as refugees in Japan was reported extensively in local English-language press and overseas. When two members of the Kazankiran family were summarily deported in January 2005, the UNHCR denounced the move as “against international law,” and the Japanese government received widespread condemnation.

Both families have since been resettled in other countries, but the memory of their struggle has lingered on. So too have criticisms from organizations such as Amnesty International, which reported in May that Japan “continued to deport failed asylum applicants to countries where they faced a risk of torture or other ill-treatment.” Not exactly the most glowing of report cards. But is the reality as bad as the detractors would have us believe?

Japan has only recently begun to feel the impact of the refugee crisis. It didn’t ratify the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees until 1981, bowing to international pressure in the wake of the Vietnam War and the flow of refugees — the so-called “boat people” — that resulted from it. It took three years after the fall of Saigon for Japan to accept just 500 people, and ten years before the quota was raised to 11,500. Although these were significant numbers for a country that had never previously taken in refugees, the government wasn’t ready to open the floodgates yet. Instead of granting individual refugee status to those it accepted, Japan admitted the refugees as a group based on humanitarian grounds. The number of refugees accepted thereafter slowed to a trickle — during the whole of the 1990s, fewer than 50 asylum seekers were granted refugee status.

No welcome mat in Japan

Refugees, by definition, are people fleeing persecution or danger in their home country to seek safety and a better life elsewhere. Nations which have signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, including Japan, pledge to protect them. Yet those who arrive here as asylum seekers are routinely treated as illegal immigrants and incarcerated in detention centers. Legal advice is difficult to obtain, and those who manage to apply for refugee status are faced with an average wait of two years to get an answer.

Asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work during this period, yet the government provides financial support to only a limited number of candidates, and only for a period of four months. This support is hardly lavish, either, consisting of 135,000 yen in living expenses per month for a family of four, plus a monthly maximum of 60,000 yen in housing support. When the number of refugee applications last year doubled from 2007 to 1,599, the government temporarily suspended support altogether, claiming to be “overwhelmed” by the increase. Although the payments were reinstated after a few days, worse news arrived this May, when tightened eligibility criteria cut off support for more than 150 asylum seekers.

Eri Ishikawa of the Tokyo-based Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) admits that the situation is tough. “We’re swamped,” she sighs. “Forty people have become homeless, some of them women and children. While we and other charities are trying to secure accommodation as quickly as possible, we’re struggling to deal with the sudden increase in demand.”

In addition to legal and social advice, the JAR also provides financial support for those in need. After the government tightened its acceptance criteria, the group launched a fund-raising effort in order to continue supporting those who had been deprived of aid under the new restrictions. Thanks to both corporate and individual donations, JAR has managed to raise 3,609,000 yen, which they aim to start distributing this month.

Asylum seekers with valid passports or travel papers are not usually incarcerated as soon as they arrive in Japan, and they can enter the country on a tourist visa.

This is what Hso and Myint* did when they first came here in 1992, fleeing the military junta in their native Myanmar. When we meet them in their elegant Korean barbecue restaurant in Takadanobaba, it’s hard to believe that they have overcome a 17-year struggle to get there. Speaking no Japanese when they first arrived and without legal advice or financial support, they had no choice but to slip under the radar, avoiding the authorities after their tourist visas ran out. Having made connections with the local Myanmarese community, they managed to make do for ten years by working illegally. Finally, in 2003, they applied for refugee status on the advice of their families.

Yet no sooner had they applied than Hso was arrested while out riding his bicycle, when police noticed that his alien registration card and visa were out of date. He was held in detention for 64 days awaiting trial, during which time he shared a cell with two yakuza. “Ironically, they understood me better than the police,” he recalls. “They shouted at the officers, ‘Hey! Release this guy, he’s done nothing wrong!’ But when I tried to tell the police I was a refugee, they said it had nothing to do with them, that it was a matter for the Ministry of Justice.”

Hso was eventually released with a warning and five-year probation, but that wasn’t to be the end of it. After his case was passed over to the immigration authorities, he was immediately taken to a detention center in Shinagawa, where he would spend another 19 months.
“It was terrible,” he says. “There were six men to a six-mat room, and you had to ask for permission just to use a pen. I had severe back pain, but the doctor didn’t even look at me when he came. He just gave me weak painkillers, and it was a month before they finally took me to hospital — in handcuffs.” Eventually, Hso was given spinal injections to relieve his pain.

After applying for voluntary release seven times, Hso was finally let out to join Myint, who had been struggling to raise their three young children by herself. Receiving no help from the government, she had had to survive on money sent over by her family in Myanmar. In May 2005, after a tense two-and-a-half year wait, the couple was finally informed that they had not been granted refugee status, but were allowed to stay in the country as long-term residents on humanitarian grounds. “I wish the government had recognized us as refugees,” says Hso, “but I know that I am one inside, and that’s what counts.”

Critics have plenty of ammunition

Cases like this give critics of Japan’s refugee policy ample ammunition. The length of time it takes to consider refugee applications and the lack of support provided to asylum seekers during this period are both issues that need to be addressed. Critics are also quick to attack the numbers of asylum applications and the approval rate, arguing that neither compares favorably to other industrialized countries. Even last year’s unprecedented 1,599 applications pale in comparison to the approximately 49,000 received by the U.S., 35,200 by France or 30,500 by the UK. While Sweden has one applicant for every 14 citizens, in Japan the figure is just one per 75,000.

Yet such comparisons can be misleading. It’s important to remember that no country actively invites asylum seekers. Nations that have signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees are committed only to the principle of “non-refoulement,” which means they pledge not to return refugees to areas where they face potential persecution or danger. In practice, the number of applications a country receives depends not on its immigration laws and policies per se, but rather on how they are perceived by asylum seekers. Other factors, such as conflicts in the surrounding area and the existence of a large foreign population or native support network, also come into play.

Japan’s unpopularity as a destination for asylum seekers is due in part to the relative lack of conflict in Southeast Asia, as well as the country’s small foreign population and the perceived difficulty of learning the language and adjusting to the society. History also comes into it: in the same way that Europe’s long tradition of colonialism and immigration helps explain the high numbers of refugees living there, Japan’s isolationism is a major factor.

By focusing on the numbers of asylum seekers who are ultimately recognized as refugees — around 11% — Japan’s critics also often overlook those who are granted special residence permission for humanitarian reasons, as was the case with Hso and Myint. When you take these people into account, the number who are permitted to stay here actually stands at around 25%.

Despite appearances to the contrary, too, the government hasn’t been quite as intransigent as it seems. Japan’s overseas programs, including its generous donations to the UNHCR, have begun to be matched at home in recent years. The most significant initiative is a pilot resettlement program announced last December — the first in the region — which is designed to actively increase the number of refugees here. Due to start in 2010, the program will bring 30 Myanmarese refugees a year for three years, from the camps in Thailand where they are currently sheltered. Small steps, maybe, but the move was warmly welcomed by both the UNHCR and refugee charities, including JAR.

Such measures have not gone unnoticed by the domestic media, which has voiced concern over the problem of integrating refugees into society. Yet these fears may be overstated. Expats in Japan are often quick to criticize the country for being “closed” to foreigners, but it’s easy to forget how asylum seekers are treated in other industrialized nations, where they are frequently consigned to ghettos and subjected to daily discrimination and hate crimes. The relatively low rate of immigration in Japan has meant that “asylum seeker” isn’t a dirty word here as it is in many European nations, and the country’s extremely low crime rate — including a relative lack of racially motivated crimes — is also a point in its favor.

Of course, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Hso and Myint’s story is just one among many tales of struggle and hardship. Still, it’s important to focus on the issues that really matter in this debate, like the welfare and treatment of asylum seekers within Japan, not just the numbers coming here. Refugee issues in the international community are often described in terms of “burden-sharing.”

But one look at Hso and Myint — now exemplary citizens with perfect Japanese, running their own business while bringing up three bilingual children — indicates that asylum seekers and refugees can make positive contributions to the society that hosts them. Perhaps the new resettlement program is a sign that the government is slowly recognizing this fact, and a reason to feel more optimistic about the future of refugees in Japan.

For details on the Japan Association for Refugees, see www.refugee.or.jp/en
* Names have been changed

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    Pukey2

    And why would the Kurds flee Turkey? Surely Turkey treats the Kurds well. Otherwise, the Turks wouldn't have bashed China for its treatment of the Uighurs.

    If Japan doesn't want refugees, I just wish it would say so.

  • 0

    ChrisBiggins

    This is rubbishy. Japan had quite an extensive colonial past last century, but unlike Britain there is no remorse for the actions or consideration, so many poor darlings don't want to come here.

    Japanese treat asylum seekers horrid, some of these stories make me cry.

  • 0

    TheDonald

    The government just needs a proactive plan for the people they let in. Every country desired destination does, because I think the reality is that no developed place is ever going to stop being the sought after destination for people looking for opportunity. And the cycle has been.. in Britain, Japan, America and elsewhere.. people come.. in droves, some of them.. the government coddles them with either a planless asylum.. or free this and free that.. meanwhile the domestic population builds up a resentment both for the foreigners and for the policy that provides for them.

    Instead, these places need some sort of systematic determination of how these people will hit the ground running, and it should be based on things the host country needs more of, without literally taking from the hands and the opportunities already scarce among the citizenship.

    That's just my thought, though. You can't answer this problem by closing borders because then everyone calls you xenophobic and reclusive.. and you can't answer it by welcoming everyone and doing your utmost to accommodate anyone who wants to come as if you have infinite resources to do so, without making use of them.

  • 0

    gogogo

    Really disturbing article... I hope more like this come out, good stuff JT.

  • 0

    shinhiyata

    There are more refugees in Erie Pennsylvania - assisted there by the Erie International Institute - than in all of Japan. How is it that one singular NGO with minimal funding can accomplish more than an entire society and it's government? Coincidentally, Erie was home at one time to Commodore Perry - who was also warmly welcomed to the shores of Japan. Seems little has changed since.

  • 0

    noborito

    You are joking. Japan doesn't want even the local foreigners here let alone some poor refugees. You can make 9 million yen a year and be denied a credit card, and why? foreigner. You can own your own business and be denied a credit card, even when that credit card company is trying to brand under your company name. (seen it 3 times) And Japan is not welcoming poor refugees. Perhaps Japan should start acceptance of the foreigners who are here. Then move on to others. Image is damaged anyway.

  • 0

    as_the_crow_flies

    Instead, these places need some sort of systematic determination of how these people will hit the ground running, agreed.

    and it should be based on things the host country needs more of, Many people (and many governments) don't see the difference between seeking asylum and applying to live as a migrant in a country. Granting someone asylum or not is nothing to do with a country's needs. It's about evaluating whether they have a valid threat of persecution in the country they fled. This duty falls, for better or worse, on the country the asylum seeker lands in. This is a very comprehensive article, states the case, describes the conditions that face asylum seekers with Japan, puts it in an international context, including the international legal framework. The main thing that stands out to me, is the disparity between Japan's open-handed dishing out of money to UNHCR, as long as the pesky refugees are kept out of Japan, while pleading there's not enough in the kitty to give even basic support to 150 asylum seekers in Japan, all the while blaming the seekers themselves for coming in too large numbers. If they allowed them to work, even limited hours, like students, or speeded up their notoriously slow processing of claims, the asylum seekers would not be in this desperate position.

  • 0

    Crokk

    Each country have the right to do what it wants... living in a "multi-cultural" country (ah..ah..ah..) personally I will not allow anymore people to come... I really can't understand the pressure some countries do to accept an (unlimited) numbers of immigrants. Le'ts also reminds (at least here) that some "refugees" just pretend to fall in that category, it's much easier to stay (and then "disappear", turning in fact as illegal immigrants). The fact that Japan spend money for them, but it doesn't want them inside their border isn't so illogical. I can help a "friend" even without the need he will lives in my house...

  • 0

    Foxie

    Asylum seekers are treated badly worldwide, not only in Japan. It is ridiculous that they don't have the right to work in the first place. How would you feel if you would get fired in your own country just because of the color of your skin? Or if your house would have been burnt down, half of your family killed? Then you finally manage to escape and you get treated badly just because you were looking for something to eat. Japan and the rest of the world could do a lot better.

  • 0

    Rebgagnon

    I have no problem with people wanting to relocate their lives to a country they like. As long as they do it the legal way and are productive for the country. I do not think the country should have to support them or give them special rights to live. If you want something you have to work hard to get it and for others to come in to the country expecting the population that works hard to provide for you is not fair to the hard working responsible people who live there. Traditions of home countries has been destroyed by making special allowances to others and the locals are the ones who lose their identity. Japan has worked hard to get where they are and it is not fair to future generations to not know the history and pride that should be acknowledged. Just my thoughts and sorry if it offends anyone.

  • 0

    GW

    rebgagnon

    you need to find a dictionary & look up these two words 1 refugee 2 immigrant, get back to us when you learn the difference, hope I havent offended ya

  • 0

    NuckinFutz

    The united nations should simply issue worldwide warnings against seeking refuge in Japan. Let prospective asylum seekers know that they face discrimination, imprisonment, and sub-human treatment is they come to Japan. If the Japanese government protests and considers the warning an insult they should be suspended from the UN until the system is changed or they simply declare a refusal to accept refugees. If they refuse their standing in the UN should be lowered to something equal to say ... North Korea.

  • 0

    tkoind2

    Japan's policies on foreigners from wealthy partner nations are frequently backwards and unwelcoming. For people from poor nations or refugees it is even worst.

    Japan wants to be a global leader but wants no responsibility to touch her shores. She can throw money at these causes, but doesn't want to "dirty" her pure homogenious country with foreigners who don't bring money and contributions to her economy.

    At the end of the day Japan is still closed to all but the persistent and fortunate few who qualify as desirable. But even we are kept at arms length.

    Japan needs to join the world community and take on more real responsibility if she wants to be a global leader. Otherwise she should become a closed 3rd tier nation of isolationists as many of her leaders and population so avidly dream and wish for.

  • 0

    mansen

    If I am an iranian in Japan. I would have be one of the people protesting in front of Iranian Embassy this past month so I can apply for asylum in Japan.

  • 0

    sharky1

    Life is difficult in Japan for any foreigner. The ingrained discrimination against even permanent residents is flagrant. I have seen marked improvements over the last 3 to 4 years in the government system and in the financial sector, but by and large, if those who are legal residents have these kinds of difficulties, then refugees must have an extremely difficult time just trying to survive in Japan. Introspectively, surviving with dignity would be an impossibility.

  • 0

    womanforwomen

    My thoughts are similar to that of rebgagnon. I have experienced and seen somethings that makes me really want to scream and say, you cannot get things for free, you need to work hard for anything. Sometimes, the host nation suffers very much due to the stubborn and strong cultural aspects which are not compatible to the host nation. Denmark today has some serious issues with the assylum seekers. That was one country that welcomed the assylum seekers with open hands.

    Also, another aspect is that some ofthe assylum seekers at times seek refuge using false pretenses. They are not the actual affected ones. They then use up the dole money to start businesses and purchase land and property in the same country that they were running away from!

    I am not sure if Japan can afford to maintain the assylum seekers. They have to look after their own right now.

  • 0

    PepinGalarga

    great article. Most times even legal aliens feel like they will be deported.

    Japan needs to focus on immigration as a way to increase productivity in all areas.

    Immigrants which are refugees are mostly a good demographic group to bring, because they are (normally) very grateful and as a result work hard. They also know what real hardship is, so they keep on trucking, when locals may feel like they are hitting a rough patch.

  • 0

    Jadeous

    I have to say that this is more to do with culture and country than with "humanitarian efforts". This is a country with little resources. Are you honestly going to expect them to welcome everyone who needs a home like the US, with it's massive amount of space?

  • -1

    stirfry

    should be lowered to something equal to say ... North Korea.

    japan is north korea with money

  • 0

    taiko666

    This is a country with little resources. Are you honestly going to expect them to welcome everyone who needs a home like the US, with it's massive amount of space?

    Yeah, yeah, poor little Japan. Interesting that even though Japan is 50% bigger than the UK, and is much richer, it has accepted only 508 refugees in the last 27 years (av 18 per year), versus the UK's 7701 last year alone.

  • 0

    butakun

    Well, good for you. But I don't want Japan to become like some EU states. I live in an apartment which is now mostly occupied by assylum seekers, some granted, some waiting for their verdict, and I have to say most of them don't deserve the state aid they amply receive, somehow they managed to convince the authority. But I don't see any of them actively seeking employment, nor following the language/professional courses which are offered to them for free of charge.

  • 0

    beyersm

    Give them a break. First of all they are not the ones who are CREATING the refugee situation all around the globe in the first place, or at least not nearly to the extent that the West with their perennial War on the Poor. One that has been ongoing since "Peace" was declared at the end of WWII (you may of heard this--they like to call it "war on terrorism" or "war on communism").

  • 0

    ThonTaddeo

    Hso was eventually released with a warning and five-year probation

    A "warning"? Sixty-four days in jail is somewhat more than a "warning".

    And it couldn't really have been probation if the authorities then grabbed him and imprisoned him for 19 months.

  • 0

    JasUK

    I appears some Japanese forget how they ended up in Brazil other south American countries. After 13yrs my Argentian friend (fluent in Japanese) left Japan with his Japanese wife (and cat) to go EU due to barriers in japanese companies and being gaijin. I too have no plans to settle in Japan simply for those reasons, i will return to UK with my wife (Japanese too) and baby.Until Japan changes they will never truely be a multi-cultural society.

  • 0

    Icewind007

    It's hard to believe some people have the nerve to defend Japan in some of their treatment of asylum seekers. If you say Japan shouldn't have to accept them, then Japan should have said so! It's one of many fronts I've seen with Japan dealing with foreign peoples. They say one thing and do another. They appear to be cooperative on paper, but it doesn't always materialize.

  • 0

    amerijap

    The article seems specious in respect to the treatment of asylum seekers as well as the number of refugees filing for asylum.

    When you take these people into account, the number who are permitted to stay here actually stands at around 25%.

    I wonder what source they cite for this statistics. It's spurious. Since Japanese government just passed the immigration reform bill this July, the chance that refugees are granted special residence permission for humanitarian reasons are likely to be getting slimmer and slimmer.

    how asylum seekers are treated in other industrialized nations, where they are frequently consigned to ghettos and subjected to daily discrimination and hate crimes.

    Nice try. But this argument is valid on the condition that Japan grants the asylum seekers residential status when they file the applications to the immigration office. The article does not provide any information on the studies that assess asylum seekers' chance to acquire a special residential status in any developed country in comparison with Japan. Thus, the article is distracting us from the point.

    The relatively low rate of immigration in Japan has meant that “asylum seeker” isn’t a dirty word here as it is in many European nations

    And I wonder how the author of the article backs up its words for the argument that "asylum seekers are routinely treated as illegal immigrants and incarcerated in detention centers? "

  • 0

    rurika

    While I have some sympathy for genuine asylum seekers, the truth is that the vast majority of people who claim asylum are simply economic migrants. If the Japanese start accepting large numbers of asylum seekers like Europe has, they will soon find their hospitality abused.

    There is probably a middle ground but the Japanese people should have a say in this. I certainly wish I had a say in my home country...

  • 0

    federale

    Japan is wise to restrict and discourage refugees. Here in the U.S. they have a negative impact.

  • 0

    notimpressed

    Japan is seldom as wise as it is cruel. But yet I hang in here.

  • 0

    AK619

    Sad story......

  • 0

    morriconelover

    I disagree strongly with the views coming from Rebgagnon and Womanforwomen. First of all, as a dane, i am proud that even though we are a small nation of 5 million people, we have still had space and economy for accepting many refugees/asylum seekers throughout the decades. And according to most written articles and studies, 8 out of 10 new-danes are somewhat or well-integrated. Everyone still have to follow local laws, and yes politicians are slow almost putting a stop to letting new people come, but we still do accept more asylum seekers in Denmark than Japan. Of course its important for a country to maintain its own identity, but closing itself off from the rest of the world in this globalised age is not the way to go. Japan could/would benefit a lot from trying to help more refugees, but also needs a good plan for integration. Problems of integration in several european countries have been a consequence partly of lack of will from european politicians to do their best to have an integration plan ready. And it is a myth and often an ignorant stance to think that most refugees would choose to flee their home country solely because of wanting free stuff. Many come from countries where they might risk prison/torture/ or have no opportunities for getting a job to support themselves. If refugees were given some good introductory help combined with fast language courses, and maybe allocated some of the small jobs that exist in Japan (like cleaning jobs, parking lot jobs, waving a flag jobs), then integration could come a lot faster. If youre forced to live underground and being detained for 18 months while having committed no crime, then there is something wrong with the system. Rebgagnon mentions that he has no problems with refugees who apply legally for becoming a citizen, well, the conditions for applying may be so harsh that there is no other opportunity than to do it that you. People like us from rich industrialized countries like Japan, Denmark, whereever, should really be thankful that we are not facing the same situation.

  • 0

    whitepocky

    The issue reverberates around the issue of saving face, something all of us know about living here in Japan. The government keeps the door open in order to save face with the UN and other nations, yet slams it shut once the foreign community arrives. This is not simply a race issue, even Japanese nationals who were born overseas can be discriminated against.

  • 0

    morriconelover

    Whitepocky, i agree. I was surprised to read earlier this year about the government handling the issue of solving the shortage of jobs by giving the descendents of japanese-brazilian who works in Japan on a temporary visa a one-time amount and a plane ticket back to Brazil. While in reality on the longer run Japan is facing a decline in the birthrate. And in the future the pressure for getting foreign work force would increase, so instead of shunning hardworking people away, the country needs to open up more. Of course on some levels, things are changing when it comes to discrimination and stuff. The younger japanese dont really have the same discriminating attitude towards Burakumin as older generations. Although being registered as a burakumin can still be a reason for not getting the dream job. But for the elder generation its still kind of a taboo. And one politician in LDP (dont remember the name), was actually rejected as a party leader unofficially because he had burakumin origins. One of the politicians that actually made some discriminatory talk against this guy was....Taro Aso. I read it from an article in Asahi Shinbun. And Taro Asos comment made a lot of talk in its time.

  • 0

    Mark Weiss

    As I myself am getting my 'ducks in a row' in preparation to leave a country that is on the verge of civil war, I am considering a move to Japan. One of the things that makes Japan great is also the thing that makes it hard for foreigners to enter: they don't take the dregs of society. Japan has kept their country relatively high grade and free from non producing leeches for decades. If they were to let in refugees, especially poor ones, Japan would, in a few decades, turn into the cesspool that America has become. And frankly, I don't want to see Japan become another cultural dumping ground. For me to live there, I will have to bring a valuable skillset and work hard to become an asset to the nation. I am leaving my country precisely because it is full of refugees and free riders who have voted in a massive welfare state. Now the whole thing is imploding and I just hope I can get the hell out before it all turns into an "Arab spring" event. Japan's strongest attribute is its mono culture.

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