Japan is making asylum even more difficult for refugees
EELIZABETH obueza’s Her life has been in limbo since 1991, when she fled Nigeria, fearing genital mutilation. She came to Japan, one of the few countries willing to grant her a short-term tourist visa. Her refugee claim was rejected, but, by reapplying, she managed to stay. Without permission to work, she relies on food stamps. In 2011 and 2016, the authorities suddenly arrested and detained her for a total of nearly two years, including seven months of solitary confinement.
Ms Obueza’s situation is all too common. Less than 1% of applicants are granted asylum – last year only 202 people, a poor figure but still the highest so far. (In 2021 Germany accepted 39,000 refugees, the highest in the G7, followed by Canada with 34,000.) Applicants wait years (on average four, sometimes ten) while their applications are reviewed, with few rights and often at risk of arrest. At the end of 2021, there were 13,000 foreigners in Japan applying for refugee status. Things are about to get even tougher for them. Japan’s parliament this month passed a bill changing the law so that asylum seekers who have already applied three times can be deported.
Japan’s society is becoming increasingly dependent on foreigners; The number of migrant workers has almost tripled over the past decade, reaching 1.8m in 2022. But the government has maintained its hardline approach to refugees, arguing that there are too many fraudulent refugees abusing the system to enter the country. In fact, says Ibusuki Shoichi, a human rights lawyer, by increasing exports, the Japanese government is “pushing the execution button” for those in need of protection. Her attempt to pass the same bill two years ago was blocked amid public outcry, when Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman, died in custody after being refused medical treatment. She was the 17th person to die in custody since 2007. Hunger strikes have become common in detention centres.
In a short time Japan’s refugee policy seemed to be easing. After the Russian invasion, Japan accepted more than 2,300 Ukrainians. But at the same time the government explained the one a more restrictive refugee convention, to exclude those fleeing conflict. Ukrainians, as “quasi-refugees” or “temporary evacuees”, received one-year resident permits. And other nationalities did not receive similar hospitality. Yucel Mehmet, a Kurdish man who lives near Tokyo, is happy that Ukrainians are welcome, “but I can’t help wishing that they accepted even ten Kurdish refugees.” Out of approximately 2,000 Kurds living in Japan, only one has earned refugee status.
The one urged Japan to accept more refugees. The topic has never been a big issue in Japan, but the bill has sparked “unprecedented” enthusiasm, says Ishikawa Taiga, an opposition lawmaker. On June 8, as agreed, protesters gathered outside parliament and lawmakers went inside. Campaigners hope to repeal the bill before it comes into force in May next year. “For 33 years I have lived here in peace,” says Ms. Obueza. “I am begging the government: give us a chance to stay.” ” ■
Correction (July 1): This story has been updated to clarify why Ms. Obueza fled Nigeria.