Our Lives | BLACK EYE

Offering support — and floor space — to Japan's refugees

by Baye McNeil

The debate over Japan’s rock-bottom refugee recognition rate rages on. According to the Justice Ministry, out of 7,586 applicants in 2015 (up from 5,000 in 2014), Japan only recognized 27 as refugees (up from 11 the previous year). While supporters of asylum seekers condemn this high number of rejections, particularly of those applicants fleeing persecution or violence, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has argued that Japan needs to improve conditions for its own citizens — especially women and the elderly — before tackling the issue of refugees.

Fortunately for these vulnerable people, though, there are organizations here like the Japan Association for Refugees that exist to help meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, provide them with relevant legal and social assistance, and advocate for their rights in this country.

And then there are individuals who go the extra mile to help refugees in Japan — people like Alex Easley, an American expat who provides humanitarian support to recently released detainees via the prison ministry of Tokyo Baptist Church. A native of Pittsburgh, Easley originally came to Japan as a singer and fashion model more than 40 years ago.

I was curious about how he’d gotten involved with supporting refugees, and wasn’t surprised when he told me it was via the church. After all, he’s been a member of the congregation in Shibuya for over three decades.

“The church has many committees and ministries,” Easley explains. “There’s a ministry for the homeless, for prisoners, for refugees and one for orphanages, too. I used to do an annual Easter gospel concert fundraiser for Japanese orphans. The church would invite choirs from around the country to come perform, and we’d use the money for orphanage expenses and also to have high-school and university students take the kids to Disneyland.”

Easley kind of stumbled into working with refugees, he says. After working with the kids for many years, there was a scheduling shift at the church.

“The orphanage ministry was moved to the weekends, but I’m usually working on the weekends. But the prison and refugee ministries were during the week, so I decided to go and try that.”

First, Easley underwent a period of training about the issues surrounding refugees.

A refugee, as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, is “any person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her 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 or her former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” In more general usage, the term refers to anyone seeking refuge from war and disaster as well as persecution, whereas “asylum seeker” is usually understood to refer to those specifically fleeing persecution.

The church teaches those who intend to minister to these groups the dos and don’ts of dealing with refugees.

“Our main goal is to tell people about Jesus,” Easley says, “and to assure them that Jesus is love. As far as what not to do is concerned, I think the biggest don’t is ‘Don’t promise anything.’ Like maybe the person needs a guarantor — we can’t promise a guarantor. Or even stuff like CD players — can’t promise that either.”

Easley informed me that many refugees are held at the immigration offices in Shinagawa and Yokohama, but he usually ministers in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, the location of the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, Japan’s largest detention center for the incarceration of immigrants. The facility is operated by the Justice Ministry and houses approximately 700 inmates, both male and female. It opened in 1993 to handle overspill from the Yokohama Immigration Detention Center, which had exceeded capacity.

I had no idea about any of this and was very curious about the whole process and Easley’s involvement.

“Refugees come into the country and might not have a visa, so they’re kept at Narita airport for a month while the staff there try to force them to go back to their countries of origin,” Easley says. “And once it’s realized that they can’t go back, or they’re not going back, they’re sent to Ibaraki.

“Now, there are two types of refugee. You have the type who are stopped at immigration at Narita, then you have another type of refugee who has permission or a visa to get into Japan, comes through immigration at the airport and goes to apply for refugee status at immigration in Shinagawa. But they won’t get work permits until six months after this process begins. So the problem is: What are they going to do during that first six months? There is an RHQ (Refugee Assistance Headquarters) that helps refugees, but it sometimes takes two to three months before that help can start.

“They need food, clothing, shelter,” says Easley. “The church can offer transportation fees to refugees but they don’t have accommodations. This is where I individually come in.”

I had to take a pause to process what he was saying. And then it hit me. Up until that point in the interview, I’d been under the impression I was interviewing a man who gave up some of his free time to help refugees — which was impressive enough. But there was more.

“I have my own six-tatami-mat apartment and five-mat kitchen if people need a place to stay and—”

“You keep refugees in your home?!” I blurted.

“Yes.”

“Holy s—-!”

He laughs.

“Last summer I had 14 in one room,” he says, grinning broadly. “They were mostly from Nigeria, Cameroon and there was a Chinese man as well. And — thank you, Jesus — at that time there was an apartment downstairs from me that became empty. So some of the people could go down there and sleep at night. That went on for about three months.”

I wondered what kind of life these people could expect to have in Japan.

“Well, it depends on what type of refugee they are,” Easley explains. “If they’re the type who were stopped at Narita and kept in the immigration center for nine to 10 months, they need a guarantor, an address and between ¥100,000 and ¥300,000 to come out. Those people don’t have permission to work and aren’t allowed to work, but they often go do the jobs that Japanese don’t want to do — farm work, recycling, construction, those kinds of jobs. And they have to go to Shinagawa every two months to get an extension.

“Now, the ones that got through the airport, if they wait six months, they might find a good-paying factory job, or work in hotels, or as wait staff in restaurants, because they have permission to work.”

I was still curious, though, about how these people wound up living in Easley’s home for weeks on end.

“Oh, that’s a long story,” he says. “Somebody knows somebody knows somebody who calls me and says this person needs a place to stay — that’s how most of them came to stay with me. And at the Japan Refugee Center in Yotsuya where I live, maybe somebody in my house went there and saw somebody who didn’t have a place to stay — that’s likely how the word spread. And I hate to turn anybody away.”

I told him how impressed I was with what he was doing, but I wanted to know more about what drove him to welcome strangers into his home.

“People helped me when I first came to Japan,” he says. “You know? Early on in my time here, when I was having hard times, Japanese friends who were going out of town let me stay in their apartments, and even when they returned they let me stay until I got on my feet. I was blessed, and I wanted to pass that blessing forward.

“It’s not 14 people anymore,” he stresses. “I try to keep the number manageable, four or five, but my door is still open. And the church supports me a bit. They’ll pay my transportation costs to go to Ushiku, and they’ll supply various essentials for refugees like toothpaste, toothbrushes, clothes, glasses if someone needs them. They’ll provide that kind of stuff.”

But the church won’t take responsibility for housing, he explained, because if something were to happen — an injury or accident, for example — the church would have to shoulder the responsibility.

“The church knows I’m doing this, but if anything happens, it’s on me,” he says. “And the authorities don’t care. It’s like having house guests. Some of them can’t work until they get the work permits, though. The people that were in the refugee center, if immigration comes to them, they won’t be arrested, but the people who are supposed to wait six months until they get the work permit, if immigration goes to their workplace, they’ll get put inside and lose everything. It’s a complicated situation. But most of the refugees are working and are even able to send money back to their countries. There are just a small percentage that mess it up for everyone.

“For example,” says Easley, “one refugee got drunk one night and smashed all the windows in a private refugee house. Someone housing refugees out of the kindness of their heart had to pay out of their pocket for all of their windows to be repaired.

“I haven’t really needed any financial support as yet because there are a number of organizations that provide sustenance” to refugees, he says. “Second Harvest, for instance, gives food, as does the Catholic Church here. Nobody’s starving. So, so far so good. I’ve put my trust in Jesus, and so far every mouth has been fed, and every bill has been paid.

“However,” Easley continues, “we do need people to volunteer to visit refugees, especially in Ibaraki. And if they can’t get there, the centers in Shinagawa or Yokohama house refugees as well. Visiting hours are only during the week, though. And since most people are working, it’s very difficult to find volunteers. Also, you must know the name of the person you are visiting. So, if people would like to visit a refugee, they can contact me and I’ll provide them with the names and particulars.”

Alex Easley can be reached at alexeasley@hotmail.com. Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp