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NPOs try to support rising tide of asylum seekers

by Setsuko Kamiya

Last in a series

As the number of applicants seeking refugee status in Japan is on course to set a record this year, nonprofit organizations working to support them say asylum seekers are more than ever in need of aid.

At the office of Japan Association for Refugees in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, the telephone keeps ringing with calls from one asylum seeker after another desperate for help.

“We get more than 30 phone calls a day,” JAR staff member Mika Sakurai said. The callers are often homeless, as they have no money, job or people to help them out, she said.

JAR carefully interviews and screens the individuals to determine if they would be in danger if they were to return to their home countries. Once the NPO deems they qualify for asylum status, they provide legal assistance for the refugee application procedure.

The group also provides other help, including finding shelter, food and work.

Asylum seekers to Japan will likely exceed 1,450 this year, nearly double the number of the previous year, according to JAR. A majority of them are from Myanmar, but the NPO is also working with many from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The group is also contacted by refugees from African countries, including Ethiopia, Sakurai said.

With the support of The Japan Times Readers’ Fund last year, JAR helped three refugees, including a man from Pakistan who suffered persecution, to seek asylum in Japan. The man was released from detention by Immigration authorities in March but did not have any funds to live on.

JAR supported him in June for about 10 days with food and a place to stay, before he was able to enter a shelter provided by a government-affiliated agency. The man is currently awaiting the results of his asylum application.

Poor medical aid is another serious issue that asylum seekers face, as many cannot hold jobs and do not have medical insurance, according to Ajia Yuko-no Ie (The Friendly Asians Home), another nonprofit organization in Shinjuku Ward.

For nearly 40 years, FAH has mainly worked with Asian people from countries including Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Today, people from Myanmar are the largest group they support.

Many who come to seek help at FAH have serious health issues, including diabetes, heart problems and HIV, according to Taeko Kimura of the NPO. FAH receives phone calls not just from individuals but also from hospitals seeking help in returning patients to their home countries.

Kimura said FAH is determined to be neutral, and does not side with people involved in a democratization movement or a junta. Nor do they distinguish between asylum seekers and those who overstay their visas.

“There is no distinction between them when they are suffering for life,” Kimura said.

The funds from The Japan Times last year were used to buy clothes and other necessities for the seven people that FAH helped return home. They were taken to hospitals in an ambulance without any belongings and were directly taken to the airport without even any clothes, she said.

In some unfortunate cases, however, treatment arrives too late. Kimura said at least four people FAH directly worked with died during the year, but they are aware of even more who have lost their lives in Japan.

Some part of the Readers’ Fund was used to pay for Myanmar monks who reside in Kyushu to travel to Tokyo to read sutras for the diseased, Kimura said.

“It’s actually hard to tell how much people are in need of help because there are many, but there is a limit to the number of people we can help, because it does cost a good deal of money,” Kimura said. She criticized the government for not doing enough for the asylum seekers, despite making promises to accept refugees.

“As the number of asylum seekers grows, the government suddenly leans on us, but there is a limit to what the private sector can do,” she said.