More than a million refugees from the Middle East and Africa poured into Europe last year, and the world is struggling to cope with the migration crisis, yet little has been heard or done about the issue in Japan.
Some girl high school student groups in Tokyo, however, are trying to open their eyes to the outside world and learn more about the problem.
“Imagine, armed forces came to your house out of the blue,” Jafar Atayee from Afghanistan said in a speech in front of nearly 40 students at Seishin Joshi Gakuin school in Tokyo last December.
Atayee, 25, fled from his home country when it was controlled by the Taliban and came to Japan in 2009.
But the Japanese government has still not granted him asylum, and he is now studying at a college on a student visa.
The speech was organized by SOFIS, a volunteer group of female high school students at Seishin Joshi Gakuin and other sister schools. The group seeks to learn about international and social problems, including refugee issues.
“There were so many difficulties … we didn’t have enough money to buy clothes … to buy food with better nutrition,” said Atayee in English, recalling his initial years in Japan when he struggled financially, received no job training and grappled alone to learn the Japanese language.
“That was even beyond my imagination. I was not expecting to have such an experience” in Japan, he added.
The students listened attentively to the speech and asked questions about how he has managed to live in Japan without refugee status, and about Muslims being persecuted amid terrorist attacks.
Ayako Aizawa, 17, the head of SOFIS, said, “I was shocked to hear that (Atayee) struggled so much and couldn’t live properly.”
Takako Suda, 17, another senior SOFIS member, said, “We can’t be naive to think international problems have nothing to do with us, just because we are high school students.”
According to the Justice Ministry, a record 7,586 people sought asylum last year in Japan. But only 27 people were granted refugee status, compared with 16 the previous year.
Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board of the Japan Association for Refugees, said there are cases where people who should be given refugee status are turned down, and the number of those recognized as refugees remains low in the country.
But she welcomed younger generations getting involved.
“By taking interest in the issue and deepening discussions, I believe the support system in Japan will improve. It is great that high school students themselves are creating opportunities for learning,” said Ishikawa, whose nonprofit organization provides legal and social services for refugees in Japan.
In concluding his speech, Atayee said he can see the girls “helping refugees and the whole world” in the future.
In January, a man from Myanmar’s minority ethnic group, the Rohingya, also spoke in front of the students about his struggles before he was granted asylum.
“I hope the students will be able to think for themselves and generate actions even if the challenges seem enormous,” said Seishin Joshi Gakuin Principal Eriko Oyama.