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Scant welcome for refugees in Japan

By Abigail Mawdsley
BBC News, Tokyo

Burmese refugees making clothes at the Tokyo apartment
Refugees like Lu are not allowed to work but receive no money

In a cramped apartment in Tokyo, volunteers are teaching Burmese asylum seekers how to make clothes combining Japanese fashion with their own traditional embroidery.

They hope the project will give women like Lu [not her real name] a way to make ends meet.

It has been three years since Lu fled Burma, leaving her husband and children behind. She claimed asylum on arrival in Tokyo and was sent straight to an immigration detention centre where she spent almost a year.

Two years on she is still waiting for a final decision on her status. Every day is a struggle to get by. Like many people claiming asylum in Japan, she is denied government financial aid but also banned from getting a job.

"I'm not allowed to work, but if I don't work I can't live. I get no financial assistance, I'm supporting myself."

When asked about her experience in Japan, she is visibly upset.

"I love my country but I couldn't stay there," she says.

"When I came here, I believed that because Japan is a democracy they would welcome me, because I'm a refugee. But it hasn't. I'm really afraid for my future. I feel very sad."

REFUGEES WORLDWIDE
USA: 16,742
France: 11,441
Germany: 7,853
UK: 7,079
Australia: 1,854
Japan: 417
Number of people granted refugee status or some other form of protection in 2008 (UNHCR)

Japan is one of the largest single donors providing financial aid and assistance to refugees overseas.

But critics say that is in stark contrast to the reception given to asylum seekers at home.

Last year the world's second-largest economy granted refugee status to just 57 people - a tiny number compared to most other wealthy countries. But it is still an almost four-fold increase on 10 years ago.

Another 360 people were given special residence permits on humanitarian grounds, but with fewer rights and benefits than fully recognised refugees.

'Unwelcoming'

Part of the reason the number of recognitions is low is that is the number of people applying for refugee status in Japan has also been relatively low.

Japan is comparatively hard to get to and presents a linguistic challenge to many asylum seekers.

Hiroaka Ishi
I feel that we need a more generous attitude
Hiroaki Ishii,
Japan Association for Refugees

The flow of people has tended to be outwards rather than inwards and governments have traditionally adopted tight border controls, fearing immigration could harm social cohesion.

Human rights groups like the Japan Association for Refugees (Jar) say the system is unwelcoming.

They say communication problems, lack of appropriate legal advice and the lack of an independent appeals procedure have led to a high rate of refusals in the past and deterred some people from even applying.

Incidents like the high-profile deportation of two UN-recognised Kurdish refugees in 2005 have also made it seem like a poor option to some.

"Japan wants to be seen as a humanitarian giant," says Hiroaki Ishii, the acting head of Jar. "To do so it must look at how it treats people inside as well as outside of the country."

"I feel that we need a more generous attitude," he says.

Financial hardship

Those who do apply for refugee status often find themselves in a similar situation to Lu - with no access to financial support but no legal right to work.

Asylum seekers in Japan do not qualify for general public assistance or health insurance, although a small amount of money is made available through the foreign ministry to those considered the most needy.

Even for the few who qualify, it is less money than Japanese people on welfare receive and is only available for four months, though this can be extended.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on 9 October 2009
Campaigners hope the new government will mean change

Campaign groups say many asylum seekers are left facing extreme financial hardship.

And they say that this hardship is getting worse because the number of people seeking asylum is growing while the funds for assistance and the number of people processing claims are not keeping up.

"Since 2006, the number of asylum seekers coming to Japan rapidly increased," says Mr Ishii.

"That has caused many problems, both in terms of financial support but also the length of time people have to wait for their applications to be decided. Many people are really suffering."

There is currently nothing in Japanese law that guarantees even a minimum safety net to asylum seekers, he says. Jar and other campaign groups are calling for this to change.

Asked to comment, the foreign ministry told the BBC it "would continue to consider taking the necessary measures to protect applicants… by carefully examining the situation surrounding refugee applications."

'Progress'

Johan Cels, the UN refugee agency's representative to Japan, agrees on the need for people awaiting a decision on their status to have access to basic assistance.

But he says it is also important to recognise that positive changes have been made.

"Last year saw the highest figures ever [for granting of refugee status or permission to stay on humanitarian grounds] and it's a development," he says.

Changes to the law in 2004 relaxed policy in some areas, such as getting rid of a 60-day limit to apply for refugee status after entering the country.

And he says an agreement for a pilot resettlement programme for Burmese refugees beginning next year is a milestone, despite only involving 30 people a year.

Looking forward, he is cautiously optimistic.

"The new government has made quite a number of references to the refugee issue not only here in Japan but worldwide. We hope it will translate into concrete actions."

Mr Ishii also hopes the new Democratic Party of Japan-led government will take a fresh look at asylum policy.

"Among the parliament members from the governing party coalition there are many people who have shown concern about refugee issues," he says.

"Now they have moved from opposition to the ruling party, of course we are expecting some improvements will come."

But for people like Lu, they cannot come soon enough.



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