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Liberating refugees from shackles of despair

The Japan News

Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board of the Japan Association for Refugees, holds donated baby clothes that will be given to refugees at JAR’s office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 25.

By Yuka Kumakura / Japan News Staff WriterAlthough Japan is said to be less willing to accept refugees than some other countries, several private organizations provide assistance to those seeking refugee status in Japan. The Japan News asked Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board of the Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization with 20 years of history, about the circumstances refugees in Japan face and what her group does. Ishikawa has been chair of the board of the Japan Association for Refugees since 2014. She helped found JAR while still an undergraduate at Sophia University. She is 43. The following is excerpted from the interview.

Approval of one’s application for refugee status can be a life-changing experience. Refugees are liberated from the dread of returning to their homeland, where fear of persecution awaits, and are permitted to live in Japan for five years, in practice. It also becomes easier for them to receive permanent residency.

However, the path to approval is fraught with uncertainty. Applications take 2½ years on average to process and 99 percent are ultimately rejected. Last year only 42 people — or 0.3 percent of all applicants — were granted refugee status in Japan, lower than the 3.1 percent rate in South Korea, which approved 118 applications, and the 6.8 percent rate in Italy, which approved 6,448 applications and had the second-lowest rate among Group of Seven nations, after Japan.

Last month, the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), for which I serve as chair of the board, celebrated 20 years since its founding. The organization helps roughly 600 refugees from about 70 countries in Japan each year, offering legal guidance on applying for refugee status and supporting their everyday needs.

Although refugees can fill out the applications in their native language, they must prove they have been persecuted or abused and present their case in Japanese. There have been cases in which applicants present roughly 600 pages of documents precisely detailing their persecution before receiving refugee status. Others, however, have been denied refugee status by the Justice Ministry, even after successfully taking legal action to overturn the initial rejection of their applications.

Some applicants tell us they don’t think they can carry on. Most refugees who come to Japan arrive with only one suitcase or nothing at all, and have little money. Although JAR provides shelter to refugees, our resources are limited and some are forced into homelessness. We provide sleeping bags during winter, though some cannot sleep due to the cold, while others spend their nights at 24-hour fast-food restaurants or wandering the streets.

In France, which I visited last year, the government is required by law to ensure the well-being of those applying for refugee status, ensuring they have shelter, three meals a day and money to survive. The contrast with Japan is striking. Our system should be changed so that those fleeing horrific hardships are not consumed by a sense of hopelessness.

However, we’re encouraged by the growing support from private citizens and organizations. JAR has recruited about 1,000 monthly supporters — individuals who contribute ¥50 or more per day to support our activities. Additionally, about 3,000 people have attended JAR seminars on refugee support initiatives and the role of civil society in such efforts.

To empower Syrians who have fled their nation’s bloody civil war, JAR launched an initiative with Japanese language schools two years ago to accept Syrian refugees into Japan as students. The program covers two years of Japanese language study at no cost. Six refugees were accepted for the inaugural year, with five graduating from language schools.

Three are now university students and two attend vocational schools. They all share a strong sense of purpose. One of them, for instance, is majoring in peace studies and working to ensure others do not become refugees.

In April, the government launched a new system to accept more foreign workers into Japan. While approval of refugee applications has not similarly risen, it is positive that more is being done to support foreigners in Japan. Momentum from the recent reforms can be leveraged to further promote acceptance of refugees.

JAR has also helped refugees find jobs since 2011. The number of firms interested in hiring refugees has steadily increased, and in 2017, JAR helped almost 50 refugees find work in the manufacturing, retail and hospitality sectors.

Companies that employ refugees are likewise changing and adapting. While some Japanese employees were initially hesitant to work with refugees, they have forged stronger bonds and now appreciate them as colleagues.

The people of Japan have increasingly embraced refugees as neighbors, friends and colleagues, evidence that Japanese society has evolved. Meaningful change has been slow to emerge, but the circumstances of refugees are gradually improving. We will continue supporting those who come to Japan seeking refuge from persecution.Speech

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