The Present Situation of Refugee Acceptance in Japan

Kogure Yasuhisa S.J. (in regency, Jesuit Social Center)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue:  No. 140 / October 15th, 2007

At the beginning: my regency for the last six months

Six months have already passed since I started my two-year regency at the Jesuit Social Center in April 2007. I began my new social service determined to “see and try,” that is to go out and get involved, to be with the people in the field and get the feeling with my skin of “what is happening.” This is the only way that I can learn. I intuitively know that this kind of observation in the field is God’s call. I am convinced that my mission during regency is to find “the signs of time” with “the people in the field.”

Three years ago the Japanese Province prioritized three important issues in present-day Japan. Among the three, I decided to tackle two; one was “Global Marginalization” and the other “Migration.” The issue of “Global Marginalization” in Japan uncovers up a new growing social gap between “the Haves and the Have-nots” and the existence of the so-called “working poor.” Through neo-liberalistic globalization, “poverty” and “social exclusion” are steadily growing even in a developed nation like Japan. The words, “self-responsibility” and “self-sustenance” often imply the word “social exclusion.” At the scene of the “movement to help the homeless people” by themselves and their supporter, we cannot help noticing the present situation of “unstable employment” in this society such as using “part time workers sent to the working spot temporarily, hour by hour and day by day (so-called spot-haken),” and “the unique refugees who spend the nights at Internet cafes (so-called Internet cafe refugees).” The present government intentionally tries to separate the “issue of homeless people” from the “issue of Internet cafe refugees,” although it is obvious that both have sprung out of the same structural cause.

The issue of migration in Japan includes both “migrants / migrant workers,” and “refugees / applicants for refugee status.” It is a fact that not only executive, judicial and economic circles, but also Japanese society lack consideration for and disregard the human rights of the migrants in Japan. Therefore the migrants are automatically forced to lead hard lives. When I was together with the migrants and their children at the gathering of the “Musubi no kai / group of together-being” in Adachi Ward in Tokyo and another gathering with Kurdish and Burmese applicants for refugee status, I became aware of the very severe, sometimes even cruel, conditions into which they were forced and realized that this inhuman situation was intentionally veiled from public knowledge.
From my six-month survey and through many encounters with various people at the “spots” and events, I can say with confidence that there is a strong connection at the root between the issues of “global marginalization” and “migration.”

Here I report my experiences and encounters with two refugees in Japan relating into what kind of situation they are put. “Refugee Seclusion” — a fact in Japan “Approval of refugee status” is as difficult as passing a rope through the eye of a needle.

What is the policy for refugees in Japan? Refugees are defined as ”those who Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

In short, they are the people who were in peril of their lives in their own countries. This is a very crucial point. In 1981 Japan became a member country of the United Nations with its “Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.” Furthermore Japan became the second largest donor to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees thus appearing in the public eye as if she gave a great contribution to improve the refugee problem in the world. However, Japan in reality is one of the strictest countries to accept refugees as can be seen in the table below. Over the last 25 years there are only 410 persons who have received refugee status based on the “Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,” the so-called “joyaku-nanmin.”

As one can see from the small number of “joyaku-nanmin” gaining “approval of refugee status” is as difficult as passing a rope through the eye of a needle.


There are two reasons for doing nothing. One is a plausible reason and the other the real reason. The official stance is to pose before the international community as a big donor to the UNHCR while camouflaging its real intention to refuse refugee’s entrance to Japan. A symbolic representation of the contradiction is the way that Japan has been recognizing refugees in accordance with the law, “Immigration Service and Recognition of refugee status.” In other words, the officials involved in the administrative branch of Immigration and Residence of Foreign Nationals are also the judges approving or denying refugee status! This fact unfortunately shows that the “refugees who are supposed to be protected” are looked at only as “objects of the administration.” This is a fundamental structural obstacle in Japan.

This deep gap between refusing to admit refugees to Japan and posing before the international community is one of the main causes of tragedies. In short, Japan only appears to be a country protecting refugees based on the “Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.” So many people come wishing to obtain a refugee status in Japan. Of course, there are sometimes other reasons to choose Japan. After they have arrived in Japan they have, on the contrary, been treated like criminals, as illegal entrants/stayers, deprived not only of their right to live, but also of their right to work, and consigned to the detention center, and sent back to their home countries. This is the reality that they have to face in Japan. It is not too harsh to say that it is as if Japan ostensibly opens the door to lure refugees.

As long as such a situation continues in Japan, it is impossible to grasp the real number of refugees and applicants for refugee status in Japan. They are put in such a condition that they cannot even apply for refugee status because they are afraid of arrest, consignment and deportation. How can those who recently came to Japan know the “rule of sixty days” that is, that they have to apply for refugee status within 60 days after their arrival in Japan? [However the rule of 60 days was abolished in May 2005 when the system for approving refugee status was modified…] Many would be refugees actually did miss their chance to apply within 60 days, and then the authorities arrest them as “illegal overstayers / criminals” and confines them. Some people describe this Japanese refugee policy as persecution by assaulting them unawares. A great number of refugees and applicants facing these present severe obstacles wonder of why they ever ended up coming to Japan.

Encounter with many refugees and their supporters

1. The nationwide Japan workshop of the Christian Network for problems that refugees and migrant workers face, the “Nan-Ki-Ren()” — the issue of immigration consignment

I had a chance to meet many refugees and their supporters at the workshop sponsored by Nan-Ki-Ren at the Japan Christian Hall in Nishi-Waseda, Tokyo on the 8th and 9th of June 2007. A total of 110 participated in the workshop: NGO members and the people from Christian churches taking an active part to counsel and support non-detained refugees, some refugees themselves and supporters working for the problems that refugees and migrant face at the three detention centers in Japan. The three centers are Ushiku-city, Ibaragi prefecture, Ibaraki-city, Osaka prefecture and Omura-city, Nagasaki prefecture. The issue of “immigration-detention” was given priority at this meeting. First Dr. Junpei Yamamura of the Yokohama Minato-machi Dispensary related that he has gone to the Ushiku detention center and carried out a survey by listening to refugees detained there since 2001, he had experienced refugee camps as a doctor also in other countries. However, he could interview the refugees only from behind a glass-partition and for a limited time span. Therefore it was impossible for him to check refugees medically. However, various symptoms especially insomnia, then weight loss, lack of appetite, headache, pain all over the body, stomach ache, and tremors could be observed during the interview alone. He reported that all these symptoms are the consequences of their unstable mental conditions caused by confusion, distrust and anger against unjust detention, anxiety or anguish over their unknown future, the daily inhumane treatment, and terror in their hearts from verbal abuse in the center.

On the other hand, at the Minato-machi Dispensary temporarily released refugees are medically examined and screened and if necessary a specialist such as a psychiatrist is asked to further exam them. According to Dr. Yamamura almost all of them suffer from more or less mental depression and psychological disorders such as Psycho-Traumatic Stress-Disease and Acute-Trauma-Stress-Disease. Also physical diseases such as gastritis / duodenal ulcer, lame hips, high blood pressure, and skin disease are reported.

It was evident that medical attention is not given to the refugees at the detention centers: Some questions about the medical doctor at the center were raised. (1)When the refugees complain of) pain, the doctor neither examines nor listens to them, nor explains their sickness to them and gives medication that might have some side effects.(2)At the time of a physical exam, language becomes a big obstacle without an interpreter and there is no communication between the doctor and the refugees (3)Sometimes the doctor shows several different pills and asks a refugee to choose one or two by him / herself. Furthermore the office workers at the center who are not medical personnel give out medication to the refugees.(4)There is no medical screening test, and so the health condition of each refugee is not clear. This was an astonishing report exposing the medical problems from the viewpoint of Dr. Murayama, a medical professional.
Next speaking were those、working for the refugees in the three detention centers. They emphasized the importance of mutual communication and cooperation among themselves. For instance sometimes a detained refugee is suddenly moved from the Ushiku center to the Ohmura center without any advance notice or good reason. For example, Mr. A, a refugee from Burma, was detained in the Ushiku center and started meeting a group of lawyers, his supporters from Tokyo, who came to see him frequently. Then, he was suddenly relocated to the Omura center. We could easily agree that this was done in order to separate him from his lawyers.

Attending were some actual refugees, in the strict sense of the word. Some were former refugees, applicants for refugee status, or those who are in a lawsuit against the denial of refugee status. One was a former refugee who gave up residence in Japan and decided to immigrate to Canada. I cannot forget the vivid appeals from a few、as one by one, they told us how hard life was at the immigration center, and how terrible it is to lose what they used to have. All these testimonies of their bitterness made us ponder what kind of nation Japan has become that it torments them so. As I mentioned before, refugees are the people who came to Japan in order to escape from their own countries where their lives were in danger. Even if they want to go back to their own countries, they cannot. Why does Japan give these already suffering more pain and agony? Their testimonies shocked us very much. There is a cry of appeal to those who impair their human dignity, the dignity of God’s children, and also a cry to Japanese society to recover a humane heart, to convert its way of thinking.

Through the workshop, I was encouraged by the following people: Dr. Junpei Yamamura of the Minato-machi Dispensary, Ms. Kimiko Tanaka of the group concerning the Ushiku Detention Center, Mr. Kenji Iwata of Osaka RINK (Kansai Network to protect the human rights of all the foreign workers and their family members), Pastor Hiroshi Yunohara of Nagasaki International Church in Ohmura, as well as by supporters for refugees, the staff members of the refugee team at Amnesty International Japan, the staff members of NCCJ (National Christian Council in Japan), and many other members of NGOs and Protestant churches who are deeply and compassionately involved in accompanying immigrant workers and refugees. Of course among them there are the members of CTIC, Saitama Diocese and other Catholic groups. At the end of the workshop on the second day the participants declared that they would continue to closely watch the Immigration Office, request the Ministry of Justice and the Immigration office to improve the treatment of refugees at the center, and to strengthen their internal network support.

 

2. The nationwide workshop of Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan — acceptance of “the view to accept foreign labor workers”

Another workshop of I-Juu-Ren() was held for two days on the 9th and 10th of June 2007 at Showa Women’s University with close to 200 participants. The Nan-Ki-Ren is also a member of I-Juu-Ren. At the workshop several questions were raised over the “view to accept foreign workers,” which the Executive Office, the Cabinet Secretariat, and the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations has proposed. Due the rapid decrease of the number of children, Japan will face a shortage of labor in the near future. To be concrete, they propose an increased acceptance of foreign workers with high technological skill, and a system for training f student apprentices in order to secure the future labor force. They also propose that the administration and control over foreign residents be strengthened. To put it plainly, the government would make a system that would keep able foreign manpower while being able to expel foreign residents at the convenience of the government.

The enactment of the law, in 1985, and several revisions of the law, in 1996, 1999, 2003 of dispatching labor force, that is, labor force in the unsettled labor condition, point out that the workers can be laid off anytime, and the restructure of domestic enterprises made Japan unstable for Japanese labor force. This might be the real reason for wanting a cheap labor force to be brought in from abroad Japan has a very poor concept of human rights and considers foreign workers to be cheap and controllable laborers. This attitude springs from the same roots for the refusal of the human rights of refugees needing protection. A Kurdish family with Turkish nationality, for example, went on a sit-down strike in front of the United Nations University in Tokyo in 2004 and was given mandate to seek refugee status by the UNHCR. However two of the family members were suddenly sent back home by the Japanese government. Many refugees and immigrant workers, members of NGOs and individual supporters were shocked at the “poor sense of human rights of the Japanese government.”

Turkish-Kurdish refugees — Mr. Eldar Dogan’s family 

Although the Kurdish family of four is in danger in Turkey and has a high level of refugee status, the close political relation between the Japanese and Turkish governments is behind the fact that none of 778 people, most of them Kurdish, are give refugee status in Japan. This shows a factual and deep gap between the Japanese regulations for giving refugee status and the UN refugee convention. The family, finally, left Japan for Canada, a third country, on July 10, 2007. They had been denied refugee status, had not been given permission to work, and their pride had been impaired. They spent their days in Japan being repeatedly detained and released. Mr. Dogan, who had a strong desire to live in Japan, left for Canada with saying “I have had enough of Japan.” His last words are imprinted deeply in my mind and will stay with me forever.

Encounter with Mr. K, a Burmese Refugee, at his talk in Sophia University.

I got acquainted with Mr. K through Professor Yamamura. In 1988 the Burmese military Junta began shooting and clamping down on students and others who appealed to the junta for the democratization of Burma. At that time Mr. K. was a public servant in Rangoon and with his colleagues took part in the movement for democratization. Later on, the junta discovered this and, his colleagues were fired one by one. He felt himself to be in danger and decided to leave Burma arriving in Japan in 1990.

I wanted young college students to listen to his talk about his ordeal in Burma and his present life in Japan. Therefore, I got in touch with Fr. Semoto asking to give a chance for Mr. K to talk to his class in July, 2007. That day I also invited to Mr. K’s talk Dr. Yamamura, who had introduced me to Mr. K., the members of the Refugee Team of Amnesty International Japan, and the members of Burmese Citizens Forum. Mr. K. told us the following.

In Myanmar there are government spies at every place of work watching the workers and their activities. People who are arrested go through a cruel interrogation under torture. The oppressed in many different minority groups in Burma are killed and raped. It is a concrete fact that violations of human rights are everyday events under the Junta.He also talked about his hard life in Japan, having to do hard labor to survive after his arrival. He could not get a work permit while applying for a refugee status. Does that mean that he is supposed to live on air? He could not, of course, get any government social security and health insurance. In the meantime, he got sick and he had to pay expensive medical fees, entirely from his own pocket. In fact he had a major operation and has been paying for it ever since. Japan gives Japanese nationality only to a baby of a Japanese parent, based on the blood line. Therefore, a baby born in Japan but from foreign parents cannot get Japanese nationality. Mr. K’s baby born in Japan is without nationality.

In spite of Mr. K’s hard life, he has been giving financial and material support to his fellow countrymen, those who also have a difficult time in Japan and those internally displaced in Burma. His deeds speak to us without words the “truth” that only those who suffer can give compassion to their suffering neighbors.

At the end of his talk he begged the students and others in the classroom that he is allowed to live in Japan as a refugee until he can go back to Burma and lead a safe life there. This one simple sentence of his appeal deeply touched each one of us and was more powerful than the appeal from his supporters. Some responses by the students were, “I did not know before what was happening in Burma.”, “I, for the first time, realized the hardship of the refugees in Japan.” “His talk made me ponder over our Japanese society.” I hope that the students who listened to Mr. K’s talk would get interested in and pay more attention to the recent violence by the Junta toward the demonstrating Buddhist monks and people in Burma.

This is not only a problem concerning refugees, but one instance of the present situation where “exploited people” are segregated and eliminated from this society, without letting the public know about it. When we listen to the cry of the less privileged people, their cry reaches us as if it is the voice of God; touching our conscience and giving us a grace-filled opportunity to receive precious knowledge. The most important point is that we have to make efforts to listen to this “small voice” in order to build a society where everyone can have a happy life, in a society rooted in God’s kingdom of love.

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