Three years after leaving his home in Aleppo to seek safety from Syria’s ongoing civil war, Ismael, an asylum seeker in Japan, feels life has not changed for the better.
Being denied refugee status and unable to unite with his family, the 30-year-old, who withheld his full name due to safety concerns, said he feels like he is walking in an endless “darkness,” while scraping by with a low-paid part-time job instead of his former profession as a car mechanic.
“My home is destroyed and I have nowhere to return. Every day, I feel like I (will) go insane,” Ismael said, his voice shaking.
“I want to hear the voices of my wife and two kids. I want to live with them,” he said of his family, who live in a refugee camp in Turkey.
Ismael was granted permission to stay in Japan for a year on humanitarian grounds, which allows him to legally work, after his refugee application was turned down.
But unlike officially recognized refugees, it is almost impossible for him to invite his family to Japan apart from “extremely rare cases” made possible with diplomatic efforts of lawmakers and support groups.
Amid the worst refugee and displacement crisis since World War II, Japan offered $173 million in aid to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2015, the fourth-largest contributor following the United States, Britain and the European Union. Until 2013, it ranked second following the United States.
At the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $2.8 billion in aid for refugees and migrants over three years from 2016 and promised to accept 150 Syrians as exchange students over five years, following harsh criticism over Japan’s refugee policy.
But out of 7,586 applications for refugee status in 2015, only 27 were granted, a stark contrast to the United States or European countries that recognized tens of thousands of refugees.
The Justice Ministry’s refugee policy is still extremely restrictive.
“This year, the number of asylum seekers is expected to exceed 10,000 but it seems the same level as last year will be recognized,” said Saburo Takizawa, chairman of the Japan Association for UNHCR and visiting professor at the Graduate School of Toyo Eiwa University.
Under the U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Japan acceded in 1981, refugees are individuals who possess a well-founded fear of being persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and meet some other conditions, such as a lack of protection from their state.
Once an applicant is granted refugee status in Japan, he or she can stay in the country with permission to work, social benefits and language support. But determining refugee status is another matter. Most applicants are not given the benefit of the doubt.
“In the case of Japan, many refugee status applicants have different purposes (from seeking asylum). In the first place, there is a serious doubt about their eligibility as refugees (under the law),” said Hiroshi Kimizuka, director of the adjudication division at the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau.
Many, he suggested, file applications to work in Japan.
While abuse of the system in which legal asylum seekers are given work permission after six months may occur, others argue that Japan’s refugee status determination excessively focuses on aspects to detect unqualified applicants, resulting in denials of refugee status for those who genuinely need protection.
Shiho Tanaka, coordinator at the Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization providing legal, housing and food assistance to refugees, said, “We have definitely seen many more people who are worthy of refugee status than just the 27 recognized,” adding that many asylum seekers fleeing persecution and other serious human rights violations are left in vulnerable situations under the nation’s stringent system.
According to the Immigration Bureau, only six Syrians out of over 60 who filed applications were granted refugee status in Japan in the past five years through the end of 2015. Many of them were denied refugee status as the country’s law does not include war refugees under its interpretation of the U.N. Refugee Convention.
Even in cases where asylum seekers claimed specific fears of political persecution or saw family members killed by the government’s secret police, many of their applications were rejected due to a lack of credibility or objective evidence, which lawyers say is often the result of the highly restrictive guidelines.
While at least all the Syrians who filed applications in Japan are granted special permission to stay, for non-Syrians, obtaining such status proves extremely difficult, as they are usually forced to wait for years or even decades in legal limbo.
Ali Ayyildiz, a 41-year-old Kurd, has been seeking asylum for the past 17 years in Japan as he fears for his safety after being detained by Turkish police for participating in political activities in Gaziantep.
He now lives with his Japanese wife near Tokyo with a provisional leave, which allows him to stay out of detention but restricts his movements and requires him to visit the immigration bureau every two months.
Unlike his older brother, who fled Turkey for the same reasons and was granted refugee status in New Zealand long ago, Ayyildiz was detained twice in Japan, has no health insurance or legal permission to work and is dependent on his family’s support.
“I am completely at a loss. I cannot legally work here and I am treated like a criminal,” said Ayyildiz, adding he fears being sent back to Turkey at any time, in which case he could be labeled a terrorist and sought by police.
Experts say economic burdens, concerns about possible security threats and a lack of public understanding are among factors preventing Japan from opening its doors.
The Immigration Bureau’s Kimizuka said there are benefits to accepting refugees, including promotion of multiculturalism and Japan’s stronger humanitarian contribution. But he also said there is a need to weigh these merits against possible risks, such as financial costs and security threats such as those seen in some European countries that have experienced terrorist attacks.
Others, however, claim that abusing Japan’s refugee system to plot a terrorist attack is highly unlikely as it would be much easier to enter Japan as a tourist rather than compiling a trove of documents to apply for refugee status and go through a three-year wait on average.
Takizawa also points out the invisible costs of Japan shutting the door to refugees, despite shouldering a financial burden.
Given the small “number of recognized refugees, Japan’s contributions are discounted as checkbook diplomacy” by countries accepting a large number of refugees, Takizawa said. “Taken as a whole, Japan is not a free rider, but an image of being a free rider persists, tarnishing Japan’s image abroad.”
To improve Japan’s refugee policy, experts said the government could relax some refugee recognition criteria or expand the third country resettlement program to Syrians. An overhaul in the nation’s immigration policy would be essential as well, given the lack of effective social integration policy, they said.
Adding to possible change, Takizawa said that companies directly hiring refugees would be one way to bypass the refugee status determination while supporting those in need of protection and employment.
In fact, some initiatives to utilize refugees’ skills are beginning to bear fruit.
JAR has been helping refugees and businesses connect labor demands with worker skills, while Fast Retailing Co. has started hiring refugees at its Japanese casual clothing Uniqlo stores with an eye on boosting the number of such employees to 100 in the future.
But experts say that in order to see such a change in government policy and business practices for refugees, it will be crucial to also boost social understanding about refugees.
According to a survey conducted in January by Yahoo News, only 11.7 percent of 164,073 respondents said Japan should actively accept refugees, while 83.1 percent said such a move should be considered carefully.
“We are suffering in Japan,” said Ismael. “I am not coming here for economic purposes. Even if I have to go through financial hardships, I just want to live with my family. I want Japan to help us end our plight.”