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Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) ~So refugees in Japan can feel peace-of-mind in leading independent lives ~

Chair of the Board of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) Ms. Eri Ishikawa,

Ms. Eri Ishikawa,
Chair of the Board of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR)

June’s Close Up introduces the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), a registered non-profit organization.
The United Nations has established June 20 as “World Refugee Day.“ Although it might be said that the interest level of Japanese people apropos refugee issues isn’t very high, last year some 5,000 individuals from around the world nevertheless sought safe haven in Japan. Many of those people were not in a position to select to what country they would flee, rather they ended up in Japan because it was the first nation to grant them a visa. JAR was established in 1999 for the purpose of offering comprehensive support to such asylum seekers, and in the following year it became a project implementation partner of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On this occasion we were privileged to speak to Ms. Eri Ishikawa, Chair of the JAR Board, about how the association offers support in responding to the issues and harsh realities confronting asylum seekers in Japan.

Q. Please tell me about the nature of JAR activities.


A. JAR provides comprehensive support so that asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Japan can live both independently and with peace-of-mind. The support we offer commences from the high-urgency phase that occurs immediately after arrival in the country; and it lasts until such time as asylum seekers are able to achieve lifestyle independence. In addition to offering support with respect to Applications for Recognition of Refugee Status, JAR also works to meet the food, accommodation and healthcare needs of refugee-status applicants until such time as their application-screening procedures are completed. On top of other direct forms of aid such as helping individuals secure employment that will assist them in being able to live independently; JAR also formulates policy recommendations whose aims are to realize a system under which asylum seekers are suitably treated. We also engage in public relations activities that are designed to teach as many people as possible about the plight of asylum seekers. Each year we receive more than 10,000 inquiries from asylum seekers within Japan, and in handling each and every one of these cases, we work hard to provide assistance that is in keeping with the needs of the individual.

©JAR ©JAR

The pile of materials submitted as part of a previous single asylum seeker’s Application for Recognition of Refugee Status (Left). Because submitting an Application for Recognition of Refugee Status requires numerous complex materials, advice is offered by specialist staff (Right).
©Japan Association for Refugees (JAR)

Q. Please tell me the realities confronting asylum seekers in Japan.

©JAR

The JAR Office located in Yotsuya,
Shinjuku; where numerous staff
members are on hand to respond to asylum
seekers who come in for consultations.

A. Although 5,000 people submitted Applications for Recognition of Refugee Status last year, only 11 applications were successful. The associated screening procedures take three years to complete on average. However, even though applicants are forced to wait that long, only a very small number are recognized as refugees. Additionally, the level of public assistance offered to those asylum seekers who are waiting in limbo until their applications are decided is in no way sufficient, which means many of them end up living in poverty. Although many asylum seekers are permitted to work after six months from their arrival in Japan, some do nevertheless become homeless before this provision kicks in. Courtesy of the donations and subsidies that we receive, JAR also provides shelters that can be used by asylum seekers; however, the number of people that we can cater for is totally insufficient. Concurrently, there is a system of livelihood-support (public assistance) managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). However, because the associated application process takes from two to three months to complete, the reality is that, for every asylum seeker arriving in Japan, the period immediately after their arrival is particularly difficult.

Q. What happens when Applications for Recognition of Refugee Status are turned down?

A. With the exception of unsuccessful applicants who obtain a right to remain in Japan by becoming the dependent of a Japanese national or by passing university entrance exams, etc., the next phase is that an administrative appeal may occur, applicants may decide to return to their country of nationality, or they may end up going to a third country other than Japan. When administrative appeals occur, on average it takes a further two years until a final decision is reached. Of course, the best outcome, if possible, is for the situation in an applicant’s country of nationality to improve during the period of the application process to an extent that would allow the applicant to return to that country, however, the level of support offered does not extend to being able to collect information about the situation in other countries or being able to dole out airfares that would allow people to return. Furthermore, under the current Application for Recognition of Refugee Status system, it is possible to reapply on numerous occasions if an application is not recognized, and questions have been raised as to whether or not people who don’t require protection as refugees are leveraging this system simply for the purpose of remaining in Japan to work. However, just because asylum seekers want to work, that isn’t to say that they are not refugees. Through bureaucratic and private-sector cooperation to grasp this situation, what I think is required is some form of response.

Two books that are necessary for surviving in Japan: The “Survival Guide” (Right) and “Birth and Child-Rearing in Japan” (Left) which is targeted at female asylum seekers.
These resources can be viewed on the JAR website.
©Japan Association for Refugees (JAR)

Q. There is an image of it being particularly difficult to apply for recognition of refugee status in Japan.

A. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee is someone who, "owing to a 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 nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." However, in the modern world, in addition to instances of political persecution, individual cases of people seeking to avoid armed conflict or a severe abuse of their human rights have also come to be recognized as refugees. Then again, in Japan it is the government’s position that, people who have sought to escape conflicts and civil wars, are not parties to whom the provisions of the Refugee Convention apply, and as such Japan’s interpretation of the Refugee Convention is an extremely narrow one. Furthermore, in that it is also especially difficult to recognize the factual basis of persecution or the threat of persecution that asylum seekers have been subject to within their country of nationality, the situation has become such that only a very small number of asylum seekers who make Applications for Recognition of Refugee Status are recognized by Japan as refugees. For example, more than 60 asylum seekers from Syria have applied for refugee status in Japan after escaping the ongoing civil war in that country; however, only three of them so far have been recognized as refugees. In this respect, compared to the recognition rate of 90% encountered in countries in Europe and North America., being accepted as a refugee in Japan is very difficult.

Q. What are you doing to get people interested in the issue of asylum seekers?

A. In Japan, where we can experience peace-of-mind while breathing safe air and drinking safe water, it is difficult to empathize with asylum seekers by simply thinking in terms of “tomorrow it might well be me.” Thus, rather than harking on with the message of “please be aware of the plight of asylum seekers,” what is required are specific approaches that create a sense of empathy. For example, we have held exhibitions of fashion accessories made using the most delicate fine lace knitted by Kurdish women, and we have also engaged in activities that are designed to create a point of reference through culture and food. Such activities include the publishing of books containing hometown recipes submitted by asylum seekers living in Japan.

©JAR   ©JAR

On the left, the recipe book entitled “Flavours without Borders”. Meanwhile, on the right is shown a poster for a project entitled “Meals for Refugees” which will feature some of the same recipes and be held at a university campus refectory to coincide with “World Refugee Day” on June 20. ©Japan Association for Refugees (JAR)

Q. What is required so that asylum seekers can lead “normal everyday lives” here in Japan?

©JAR

Ms. Ishikawa: “I would like
to make the circumstances
where people who have
escaped to Japan have
subsequently ended up
homeless in this country a
thing of the past.”

A. To start with, what constitutes the minimum social safety net needs to be created, and there needs to be a more suitable system for applying for recognition as a refugee. Consideration also needs to be given to what measures will be required to harness the power of asylum seekers. For example, by employing asylum seekers who understand foreign countries, some companies have expanded their sales networks overseas while also changing the mindset within Japan among their employees that everything should be done using only Japanese staff. In addition to asking people to accept asylum seekers who are trying extremely hard here far away from their places of birth, the message I wish to convey is that there is merit for Japanese society resulting from an acceptance of asylum seekers. If we are able to increase opportunities to come into contact with people whom we refer to as “asylum seekers” or “refugees” at our schools, at our places of work and within our local communities, if relationships can be formed with them, then I believe that each and every one of us will be able to view such people as being part of this society.