The clanking of Tokyo trains going by still echoes in the head of a 27-year-old Congolese man as he recalls the dreadful few weeks he spent in Japan in January 2016 traveling from station to station, homeless, in search of a place where he could survive the cruel cold nights.
The man, who declined to be named out of fear for his safety, said he came to Japan in November 2015 from the Democratic Republic of Congo after fleeing from a deadly police crackdown on civil dissent against the government of President Joseph Kabila.
Over the past year, the man has waited for Japan to recognize him as a refugee — a feat he has yet to accomplish — scraping by on what little financial support he gets from nonprofit organizations and the meager pay he earns from working at a wood manufacturing factory near Tokyo.
But in a country where refugee screening is notoriously drawn out and draconian, his current predicament, it seems, is only the beginning of what will become years of living in excruciating limbo.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” the man said in a recent interview. Is the government “going to accept me as a refugee or not? If not, I’m so young I must start thinking what else I can do. I feel like I’m some person in detention.”
His tale of homelessness and do-or-die escape from oppression at home paints a somewhat different picture of refugee applicants in Japan than what has been widely reported in recent years.
The image of migrant workers masquerading as asylum seekers has become a fixture in recent domestic media coverage of the refugee issue, with the Justice Ministry calling them “fake refugees,” giso nanmin in Japanese.
Overshadowed by the surge in such people, however, are genuine asylum seekers dismayed at being lumped in with the economic migrants, whose influx, critics say, risks distorting public perceptions of refugees in general.
Formerly the president of a local internet technology company, the young Congolese said his life began to unravel when, one day, a leader of an anti-government group asked him to print placards with a slogan protesting Kabila’s intention to change the nation’s constitution to extend his stay in power.
The man said he took the job in good faith. Days later, he visited the group’s headquarters to deliver a pile of anti-government documents he had printed, signing his name at the entrance to identify himself.
In the meantime, tensions between protesters and the police quickly escalated, culminating in a three-day mass demonstration in January 2015 that led to bloodshed.
On Jan. 24, 2015, the international nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch released a report saying it confirmed that 36 people, including one police officer, were killed during the unrest in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital.
“The Congolese government has fired upon peaceful protesters and detained opposition leaders in a blatant attempt to silence dissent,” Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher at HRW, was quoted as saying in the report.
“The students and police had a huge clash. Many students were arrested, and I was also arrested on the second day (of the protest), the 20th,” the Congolese asylum seeker recalled. “In our country, everything is possible. Police arrested every young person.”
He was soon released but remained fearful that he could be implicated again, thanks to the signature he left at the entrance to the opposition’s building. He went into hiding, eventually hearing about a man describing himself as a Japanese businessman.
“He was helping us leave Congo and looking for 10 to 20 young Congo men to go to Japan to work in genba construction. He even spoke our local language,” the man said. As a condition, “he made me pay $2,000 and told me that I was going to work until the 2020 Olympics.”
It was in November 2015 that the man arrived at Narita International Airport with a three-month temporary visitor visa. At the instruction of the Japanese man, he said he then moved into a cramped apartment in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, that he shared with several of his countrymen.
What he hoped would be a dream life in Japan quickly disintegrated after his visit to an immigration office in January 2016. He said he naively requested a new visa status as advised by the Japanese businessman, only to be told by the officials there that the company purportedly run by the businessman didn’t even exist and that he should seek help from a refugee support organization in Tokyo.
It was at that moment, he said, that he realized he had been the victim of human trafficking all along and that — to his greater shock — he had become a refugee as well. Moving out of the Tokyo apartment, he was also homeless for a few weeks before finding a new place to stay.
With the help of a Tokyo-based support group, he soon applied for refugee status and is now in Japan on what is called a “designated activities” visa that — while allowing him to work full time — requires renewal every six months. It is the same visa that, in Justice Ministry parlance, is “abused” by applicants from countries such as Nepal and Vietnam whose motive is by and large to work in Japan.
Today, he works 10-hour night shifts on an assembly line in a factory on the outskirts of Tokyo — a job that barely earns him take-home pay of ¥150,000 a month.
“I’m a refugee,” the Congolese man said with confidence.
Another asylum seeker, a 39-year-old former politician from Senegal, also said he considers himself different from those who allegedly apply for refugee status for pecuniary reasons.
“I think that’s not the case for Africans,” said the man, who asked that his name be withheld to protect his privacy.
“We have a reason. We’re in danger in our country and that’s why we came here to seek asylum and freedom, peacefully and with our dignity.”
He said he used to belong to the Senegalese Democratic Party, which was knocked out of power in a 2012 presidential election.
The party’s defeat, the man said, resulted in his family being persecuted by the new ruling party, with his brother tortured to the point that he wound up partially paralyzed.
“I was on the propaganda team and was very loud. Everybody knew me. So they had to silence us,” he said.
It is genuine asylum seekers like him who are the biggest victims of a recent smear campaign by the government and conservative media playing up what they call “fake refugees,” said Kenji Arikawa, who represents the Catholic Tokyo International Center (CTIC).
Arikawa said he is also “troubled” by the recent surge in migrant workers claiming to be refugees, expressing concern that their influx may breed a misguided public distrust of asylum seekers in general. The CTIC routinely organizes what it calls a “refugee cafe” in which it provides asylum seekers with a free lunch and daily necessities such as clothes and shoes.
The government, Arikawa said, “shouldn’t use the influx as an excuse to validate its insular attitude toward refugees.”
This view is echoed by Jotaro Kato, a representative of the Tokyo-based nonprofit group Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS), who argues that the root cause of the current situation lies in Japan’s fundamentally faulty immigration policy.
The immigration-averse government, he said, ostensibly closes its door to unskilled foreign workers but in reality connives to allow the entry of exchange students and technical interns as a back-door source of labor, Kato said.
For migrant workers, the current refugee program — under which they are allowed to start working full time six months after filing an application for refugee status — is naturally a more appealing option than a student or technical intern visa, both of which often mean ending up in illegal overwork and maltreatment.
“Blaming ‘fake refugees,’ in my opinion, is actually tantamount to admitting to Japan’s own policy failures,” Kato said.