Asylum Seekers In Japan Face Difficult Obstacles

Japan is one of the most anti-immigrant countries in the industrialized world. Sweden, with roughly the same land area as Japan but an economy only about 10 percent as large, received over 30,000 applications for asylum last year. Japan received just 1,200 applications — and approved 400, almost all of them from a single country: Myanmar. The few refugees who reside in Japan say they are treated poorly and are detained for long periods of time.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Fromm NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We're going to Japan now to hear about a quiet crisis there, but one that has nothing to do with the devastating earthquake in March or the massive rebuilding effort now underway. It has to do with the hundreds of people each year who leave their homes elsewhere the world looking for refuge in Japan.

As Lucy Craft reports, many instead find themselves trapped in a years-long cycle of detention and, in some cases, abuse.

(Soundbite of protestors)

PROTESTORS: We want justice. We want freedom.

LUCY CRAFT: Demonstrations are hardly unusual in downtown Tokyo. But this one was. The protestors: people who don't get heard very often in Japan foreign nationals, who have come here seeking sanctuary in vain.

Their leader is a political refugee who goes by a single name, Killende. Fearing for his life, he left his native Sri Lanka 10 years ago, only to end up in a new kind of hell after he reached Japan.

KILLENDE: (Through Translator) I didn't choose Japan. I would have chosen another country. I came here out of desperation.

CRAFT: Other asylum seekers and their advocates say Killende's experience is common among those who apply for refugee status in Japan - an odyssey that may stretch over years, spent shuttling in and out of crowded Japanese detention centers. Forbidden to work, they scrape by on handouts from Japan's few charities.

KILLENDE: (Through Translator) You never know when you'll be picked up by immigration. You can't marry. You can't have kids. Your life is a shambles.

CRAFT: While Japanese authorities insist the detention centers are clean and well-run, asylum seekers and human rights groups describe the holding facilities where convicted felons awaiting deportation are also held as Kafkaesque.

Ms. GLORIA OKAFOR: My name is Gloria. I'm from Nigeria.

CRAFT: Like most refugees, Nigerian native Gloria Okafor arrived here desperate for sanctuary and utterly ignorant about Japan's anti-migrant policy. Declaring herself a refugee as soon as she landed at Narita Airport, she was immediately handcuffed and thrown into a series of detention centers, where she claims she was compliant yet was beaten into unconsciousness.

Ms. OKAFOR: I was coming here to have some safety. You know, I wasn't coming here to undergo some kind of mental tortures and emotional stress. I didn't commit a crime. I'm not a criminal. I've not committed any crime.

CRAFT: With her petition for refuge now awaiting appeal, Gloria has spent most of the last four years in detention centers, where she says she was abused.

Ms. OKAFOR: And they held my legs, held my hands on the floor. You know, I was like - dragging like this, you know, to stand up. Then he judoed me and (unintelligible). Then I was kicking. I can't breathe. I have hypertension, I have heart problems, you know. So I was kicking. I find myself kicking, you know. Then I was struggling to kick and I said, I am dying.

CRAFT: Japan's Ministry of Justice denies there are human rights abuses in the detention centers. Any way you slice it by GDP, population or geographical size - Japan is one of the most anti-immigrant countries in the industrialized world.

Sweden, for instance, with roughly the same land area as Japan but an economy only about 10 percent as large, received over 30,000 applications for asylum last year. Japan received just 1,200 applications and approved 400, almost all of them from a single country, Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Hidenori Sakanaka is a former immigration official who has since become one of the most forceful advocates for wholesale overhaul of the bureau he spent his career with. He denies that refugees are mistreated, but he says...

Mr. HIDENORI SAKANAKA (Former Immigration Official): (Through Translator) Four to six years is way too long to keep asylum seekers in detention. This is terrible. Even prisoners have finite sentences. Refugee cases should be decided within six months.

CRAFT: Human rights issues aside, Sakanaka says Japan's aging and shrinking population argue in favor of lowering the drawbridge to immigrants. He's called for admitting 10 million migrants, including half a million refugees, by mid-century. It's an idea that has yet to gain any traction in a country where foreigners are associated with crime.

Identifying and caring for refugees, says ruling party parliament member Kazue Fujita, is simply not part of the immigration ministry's mindset.

Ms KAZUE FUJITA (Member, Japanese Parliament): (Through Translator) Right now, our infrastructure for accepting refugees is so undeveloped and weak, so it's not very effective. Creating a better system is the first step.

CRAFT: Japan is taking that first step, but it's hardly the initiative reformers like immigration veteran Sakanaka had in mind. Japan has agreed to accept a total of 90 Burmese refugees over a three-year period under a U.N. resettlement program. The first group of 27 arrived last year.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft, in Tokyo.

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