National

Asylum seekers in Japan get a helping hand from nonprofit group

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

An increasing number of asylum seekers — including sexual minorities and fathers living apart from their families — are looking to Japan as a place to seek refugee status. But such individuals often find the national immigration system, and the local population, unwilling to embrace them.

Since its founding in 1999, the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) has attempted to support asylum seekers by providing temporary shelters, telephone counseling services and free legal advice for those seeking official recognition as refugees.

“The number of applications from LGBT, or sexual minority individuals, has been gradually increasing,” JAR coordinator Susumu Tada said. Many have come from African countries where discrimination against sexual minorities is rife and often violent, he added.

To help LGBT asylum seekers adjust to their new environment, JAR created a counseling service in February with an attorney who has extensive experience providing consultation to sexual minorities in Japan.

The group has also made efforts to support those estranged from their families, many of whom are anxious about the fate of loved ones they were forced to abandon while pursuing official refugee status.

As part of its ongoing drive to improve refugees’ lives, the NPO has been able to make use of ¥96,928 in donations received from the Japan Times Reader’s Fund.

One man from West Asia who came to Japan in 2013 looking for refugee status found himself barred from entering the country when he arrived at Narita airport. His wife and child, meanwhile, were accepted, due to the difficulty of providing child care in the airport’s detention center.

Unable to work without official refugee status, the husband managed to secure a stipend of ¥40,000 from JAR to help support his family.

Despite JAR’s continuing efforts, conditions for asylum seekers remain challenging, with just three of more than 4,000 JAR applicants successfully obtaining refugee status this year.

“The problem in Japan is that our government’s standards for certifying refugees . . . are still based on obsolete criteria,” said Shiho Tanaka, coordinator for JAR’s public relations unit. “The U.N. refugee convention was settled more than 50 years ago, and many other countries have worked to widen their standards to protect those most in need.”

“Though Japan is in a position where it can and must provide support for refugees, as one of the few Asian countries to have signed the U.N. refugee convention, the reality is we are still lagging behind other countries,” she added.

But Tada says the government is not solely to blame.

“Systems often reflect citizens’ sentiments . . . unfortunately, Japanese people are not yet familiar or comfortable with the idea of refugees coming to Japan,” he said.

Tanaka agrees, adding that public awareness of the refugee issue in Japan remains low.

“People think the refugee issue is something that only affects faraway countries, despite the fact that there are increasing number of refugees coming to Japan. Some even confuse refugees with immigrants on the basis of their foreignness,” she said.

In a bid to raise awareness, JAR has launched a series of Facebook posts called “Today’s JAR,” which aims to humanize the issue by providing written accounts of refugees’ daily activities.

Other work JAR has been involved with includes a “Meal for Refugees” project, in which university students are able to experience cuisines from refugees’ home countries.

JAR’s continuing efforts appear to be having a positive impact. Tanaka said that more asylum seekers successfully found employment this year through the group’s job-support program — an important step toward gaining permanent refugee status.

“When refugees, who often look depressed when they arrive at our office, begin employment at a company with a smile on their face,” Tanaka said, “that I think is a rewarding moment for us.”

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