The image of a drowned boy washed up on a Turkish beach sparked a global outcry earlier this year amid the largest mass exodus of refugees in the modern era. It spawned a heated discussion in Japan on whether to make room for refugees.
In 2014, 5,000 people applied for refugee status, out of which only 11, including three Syrians, were successful. The number of applicants this year reached 4,950 in November, and the full-year total may surpass last year’s.
However, the current system offers limited protection for those seeking refugee status, said Susumu Tada, legal officer at the Japan Association for Refugees. The group has provided legal and social services for refugees in Japan since 1999.
Since there is no provision for the maximum length of time officials can take to deliberate a case, applicants may be waiting for years.
“As a result, many refugee claimants end up with no income and no access to social services and depend only on their own funds, and eventually end up experiencing homelessness. This may lead to death,” Tada said.
JAR is “trying to help them survive, in particular through the winter season,” he said.
Applicants for refugee status are granted social assistance under certain conditions, but the procedures take a few months to complete and the number of successful cases is limited. According to JAR, only in 160 of the 5,000 applicants in 2014 were granted social assistance as of March.
“We want people to become more aware of their situation, as for many refugee claimants the struggle begins following the submission of the refugee status application,” Tada added.
Every year, JAR receives about 2,000 inquiries from people seeking refugee status. They want either legal advice or help with medical matters.
Though a majority of those who sought JAR’s support between July 2014 and June 2015 came from African countries, about 40 percent came from Asia, in particular nations such as Nepal and Myanmar. In all, more than 50 nations were represented.
JAR is a regular recipient of The Japan Times Readers’ Fund.
Out of funds donated by The Japan Times readers during last year’s charity drive, ¥100,085 was given to JAR. It used the money to support three families from Asia.
One recipient was a man from Western Asia — the group is not identifying his country of origin — who came to Japan with his family in 2014 to avoid political and ethnic persecution. Despite being granted a work permit, the man failed to find employment because he could not speak Japanese.
The man filed for refugee status. But as he awaited access to social services, he struggled to feed his three children and cover expenses for their tuition and clothing.
JAR also supported a religious refugee claimant from Southern Asia who has been living in Japan since 2012 and was initially granted but later refused social assistance. The unemployed father of two preschoolers sought JAR’s help over health concerns for his family.
Another recipient was a man from South Asia who came to Japan in 2015, citing persecution as a member of a particular social group. The man turned to JAR when he struggled to support his pregnant wife with health care.
His wife has since had the baby, who is in good health.
Since last year, JAR has also stepped up support for female asylum seekers with the donation of baby strollers and baby carriers to single mothers.
It distributes condoms and informs women about safe sex with the aim of preventing pregnancies, “as women often fail to refuse when staying at a male acquaintance’s house,” Tada said.
He said a factor contributing to the existing situation is that refugee recognition procedures are handled by the Immigration Bureau, whose aim is to reduce the number of foreigners living in the country illegally.