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Japan Revels in Its Refusal of Refuge

Japan’s asylum system is more nuanced than the headline numbers suggest but it makes no effort to change its hardline image. A major donor to UNHCR, even as the population drops there is no sign of the drawbridge being lowered.

Written by David McNeill Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
UNHCR volunteers collect money for refugees in Kanto region, Tokyo, in September 2017. Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

TOKYO – Gloria Okafor Ifeoma arrived in Japan over a decade ago, claiming asylum from her native Nigeria. She left her homeland after her fiancé, a political activist, was killed, she believes by the government. When she was told she was being sought by the Nigerian police, she fled the country.

With hindsight, she says it was the worst decision she ever made. Gloria has since spent a total of about 30 months in detention centers. When not detained, she cannot work and depends on charities for help to control her diabetes and blood pressure. “I feel like the Japanese government wants me to leave – or die,” she says.

Japan’s refugee policies are notoriously restrictive. In the decade to 2013, about 300 refugees won permanent asylum. Last year, Japan accepted just 20 people. These figures are all the more striking considering the number of stateless people knocking on the door of the world’s rich countries. War and persecution have displaced more people than at any time since the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) began keeping records.

Some of this desperate flotsam appears to be washing up on Japan’s shores – a record 19,628 people applied for asylum last year. Yet these figures are misleading. Most applicants were from the Philippines and other Asian countries not typically on the refugee list. The Ministry of Justice says it handled just 29 applicants last year (January to September) from the five countries – including Syria – at the top of the UNHCR’s refugee list. Japan, it seems, is considered too far and logistically tricky for many.

Japan’s record is slightly less stingy than it seems. Hundreds of applicants are allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds. Syrian students and family members have been given visas. More refugees are brought in through resettlement programs. “The tolerance level is way more than the figure of 20 would suggest,” says Dirk Hebecker, the UNHCR’s representative in Tokyo. Indeed, some suspect that Japan is happy to have that bald figure publicized in the world’s media because it discourages all but the most determined.

Alarmed by a 77 percent jump in applications in 2017, the justice ministry is limiting job permits to asylum seekers it considers have a high chance of being accepted, closing a 2010 loophole that allowed all applicants to work while their claims were being processed. That had triggered a sharp rise in bogus applicants looking for jobs, says a spokesman. “Among the reasons cited for seeking asylum was ‘I don’t get on with my neighbors,’” he says. One concern is that detention centers, which have a combined capacity of just 3,400 people, could be overwhelmed.

Unlike many refugee sanctuaries elsewhere, Japan is becoming less crowded – at least outside Tokyo. The native population is shrinking by about 300,000 a year. Government projections say the labor force could collapse by 40 percent by 2060. If anywhere needs an influx of foreigners, it is Japan.

The problem, says Hebecker, is the lack of a clear immigration policy. “You need a strategy on how far you are prepared to let people in and right now they have a very narrow channel of very specific immigration, which also includes refugees.”

The justice ministry does not employ enough officials to gather and process information about asylum seekers and their countries of origin, says Eri Ishikawa, chair of the Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization. “Many claimants are being needlessly rejected,” she says. While other rich countries have specialist branches of government to process refugees, complete with legal and language experts, in Japan the task is lumped together with immigration.

Despite years of debate, there seems little political will to lower the drawbridge. One reason is the belief that Japan is ethnically homogenous, a closed island nation that is wary of the social disruption mass immigration might bring. Radical change seems unlikely: Under pressure from businesses amid an acute labor crunch, the government has proposed expanding the category of skilled foreign workers allowed into the country for limited periods – and without their families.

Japan is still one of the world’s most generous financial contributors to the UNHCR – $152 million in 2016. Yet under Shinzo Abe, the country’s conservative prime minister, it has slipped from second- to fourth-largest donor since 2013. Meanwhile, the experience of asylum seekers can be grim. Some are locked up for years while their claims are processed (screenings take an average of nearly 10 months, followed by an appeal that lasts nearly two years; failed applicants can reapply). Many detainees complain of medical neglect. In March last year, a Vietnamese man died from a stroke after reportedly being left lying alone for hours.

In 2015, 14 people at a single detention center tried to kill or harm themselves. Last year, two separate groups of detainees in Nagoya and Tokyo refused meals during a protest to demand an end to long incarcerations. In a letter to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, the Nagoya hunger strikers demanded their release, saying their detentions constituted a “serious human rights violation.”

Claimants such as Gloria are stuck in limbo, unable to work and living on support from churches or other organizations, such as the government-affiliated Refugee Assistance Headquarters. International Social Services Japan, another nonprofit group, pays for her medical treatment. “We can’t guarantee we can pay it forever,” laments Mieko Ishikawa, the group’s general director. Without it, she says, Gloria could die.

Every two months, Gloria must present herself to immigration authorities. They can renew her temporary permission to stay or send her home (she has applied at least four times for refugee status). Her greatest fear, she says, is that she will be sent back to the detention center. A friend died there last year, she says. “I’m always afraid of something like that happening to me.” Her dream, she says, is to go to Canada and work as a caregiver. “I survive on charity here. I can’t live like this.”

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