Nation fails to make most of refugees

Driven to excel, asylum seekers key to economic growth, journalist says

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Refugees in Japan are acutely underutilized and the nation should stop turning a blind eye to their skills and potential if it wants to generate economic growth, according to freelance journalist Kaoru Nemoto, who describes them as “professionals of survival.”

In a recently released book, Nemoto, who used to work at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, argues that Japan must change its traditionally insular mindset and unwillingness to accept asylum seekers.

“People who have ever communicated with refugees are always surprised to see how educated and motivated they are to contribute to Japanese society,” Nemoto said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “So think how much more help they could be to the country if their capabilities were combined with their gratitude for being granted asylum.”

Although stopping short of elaborating, Nemoto recalled going through the darkest period of her life recently, an ordeal in which she occasionally contemplated suicide. “I had to be careful to walk in the middle of train platforms so that no bad ideas would come to me,” she said.

But she found inspiration in memories that flashed through her mind of past encounters with those who sought or received asylum, and their indefatigable resilience. “Their life stories gave me great courage to continue living, and even prompted me to think of them as my best role model,” Nemoto said.

Japanese authorities have failed to show anything approximating this kind of respect to asylum seekers, she said.

Nemoto’s book, “Nihon to Deatta Nanmintachi: Ikinuku Chikara Sasaeru Chikara” (“Refugees Who Came to Japan: Their Power to Survive and Support”), hit the market after the Immigration Bureau revealed in March that out of the 2,545 asylum seekers who came to Japan in 2012, only 18 — or an abysmally low 0.7 percent — were granted official refugee status.

This figure contrasts dramatically with acceptance rates of 53 percent in the United States, 44.6 percent in Canada and 11.7 percent in South Korea in 2011. Many view the recent statistic as another testament to Japan’s long-standing insularity.

Experts including Nemoto have long argued that one factor behind Japan’s exceptionally low acceptance rate has to do with a perceived lack of impartiality in the way the Immigration Bureau scrutinizes asylum seekers’ claims.

The mere fact that their stories of persecution are examined by interviewers at the bureau, Nemoto argues, leaves their claims susceptible to a significant degree of predetermined prejudice and skepticism, as the bureau’s responsibility is to supervise, not welcome, foreigners in the country.

“I’d like to remind the Japanese government of the purpose it originally decided to interview asylum seekers. Wasn’t this supposed to protect and save them, rather than dismiss and turn them down flat like it’s doing now?” she asked, adding that the interviewers seldom emerge from the shadows to shed light on the process.

Concerned about the opacity that permeates the system, Nemoto repeated a popular proposal for establishing an independent panel that can transparently interview asylum seekers and assess the credibility of their claims.

“Here is what I want to ask (the interviewers): ‘Can you face up to those who you dismissed and see what will become of them?”

“Once their claim is dismissed, those people will eventually be deported back to a country where they might be arrested, incarcerated, tortured, or, in the worst-case scenario, murdered.

“When those things happen, can you explain with full confidence how you made your decision and fulfill your accountability?”

It appears, however, that this instinctive hostility toward asylum seekers is not the only problem plaguing Japan’s handling of the issue: Concerns are frequently voiced about how those denied asylum and left to await deportation are allegedly maltreated.

Once deportation orders are issued, asylum seekers are typically sent to state-administered immigration centers, such as the facility in the city of Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, for what often turns out to be an indefinite period of detention. Unlike prisons, where inmates busy themselves with vocational training to prepare for reintegration into society, detainees at these centers spend their time sitting idly, waiting on tenterhooks to see what happens next.

“Some people don’t even get decent medical treatment,” Nemoto said.

But there are some who sympathize with the predicament of foreigners in danger of persecution and take the initiative in assisting them. Spearheading the movement is Fast Retailing Co., operator of the Uniqlo clothing chain.

Fast Retailing first began to address the refugee issue by asking its customers in 2006 to bring in old Uniqlo clothing for recycling and distribution to refugees all over the world. In 2011, the recycling project turned a new leaf as the company announced that its domestic Uniqlo stores would begin to hire officially recognized refugees in Japan as interns to empower them financially.

Eiko Sherba from Fast Retailing’s corporate social responsibility division said she was initially leery of the internship program because many of the applicants couldn’t speak Japanese. But as it progressed, Sherba and her colleagues marveled at their professionalism, diligence and perseverance — qualities she believes they acquired from years of enduring life-threatening experiences.

“One Uniqlo store owner described their motivation as ‘incomparable’ to that of Japanese staff,” Sherba said at an event in Tokyo on April 23 to celebrate the release of Nemoto’s book. “The way they worked so hard encouraged Japanese employees to work even harder, which, in turn, helped drastically improve the store’s entire morale.”

Khadiza Bedgum, 27, a native Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar, came to Japan in 2006 after enduring years of deprivation and discrimination against her downtrodden tribe. Since she had long been grateful to Uniqlo for providing affordable apparel, the mother of two naturally applied after finding out about the internship program.

“When I first came to Japan, I was plagued by a massive sense of uncertainty over my future. But once Uniqlo kicked off the project, it gave me great confidence,” Bedgum said. “I even felt, ‘Well, even if something were to happen to my husband, I might be just able to support my kids and come through the hardship myself.’

“I wish more companies in Japan would follow suit, because it’s not just us Rohingya people who need help, there are many other ethnic minorities who do,” she said.