It has been a decade since Liliane last saw her little girl. She fled Africa in fear for her life, leaving behind everything she knew and loved in the hope of a fresh start in Japan.
Today, she scrapes a living from dead-end jobs and what Japanese she knows has been snatched from TV shows. There is little government help for people like her: Free language courses are limited, social housing is hard to find and discrimination is rife.
Yet, Liliane is regarded as one of the lucky ones — she was granted refugee status in Japan, a country that refuses more than 99 percent of cases.
“It has not been easy,” she told reporters, speaking under a pseudonym. “Here they do not pay for your studies, they do not help you to get bank loans, or give you social housing... We are left to ourselves, we have to fight alone.”
Anti-refugee sentiment is rising in Europe and the US, but in Japan those seeking haven from tyranny and war have long faced daunting legal and social gauntlets.
One of the world’s wealthiest countries, Japan last year accepted just 28 refugees — one more than the previous year — out of the 8,193 applications reviewed by the Japanese Immigration Bureau.
Officials defend the low number, saying applicants are mainly from Asian countries seeking access to Japan solely for economic reasons.
“The number of applications from regions which generate lots of refugees, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, is small,” bureau spokesman Yasuhiro Hishida said.
Assisted by the UN, Liliane was able to claim asylum on arrival in Japan, saying that her life was in danger due to tribal conflict back home. It took two years for officials to accept her as a refugee, a period during which she received assistance from the Catholic Church and charities.
However, she feels the status brought few benefits. She is no closer to reuniting with her child — now a teenager, her daughter has repeatedly been denied a permit to even visit.
For Liliane, further education and a stable life, seem out of reach.
“Japan is a very difficult country for foreigners. The language is really a handicap for us. You need to do absolutely everything to try to speak in Japanese, but you don’t know where to find free lessons,” she said. “Sometimes I think refugee status has no meaning.”
However, for Nonnon, being awarded refugee status would at least give her a sense of belonging.
She fled military persecution in her native Myanmar 25 years ago, but remains in frustrating legal limbo, accepted only on a humanitarian stay visa, which allows for residence and work, but traditionally only on annual temporary permits subject to anxiety-riven renewal.
“It’s like I have no nationality,” said the 47-year-old, who only gave her childhood nickname.
She has tried to forge a life in Japan, marrying a man from Myanmar who was also claiming asylum and they have a son and a daughter. However, their children are effectively stateless — not recognized in Myanmar, nor as Japanese citizens.
Refugee advocates have said Japan’s system is too harsh.
Lawyer Shogo Watanabe is helping a woman from Myanmar’s Kachin minority who says she risks sexual assault by soldiers fighting ethnic minority militias if she goes home.
“To me, the risk of getting raped by someone who is a member of the military is a legitimate reason to be a refugee, but immigration officials say you need to prove that she is actually targeted by the military,” he said of her plight.
Critics have also said that government policy ignores the country’s need for immigrants as the population shrinks.
“Japan has kept a mindset of closing doors to foreigners, as it is an island nation that until recently had ample population,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former Japanese Ministry of Justice official who heads a pro-immigration think tank.
The population is set to decline from 127 million today to 87 million by 2060.
He added that Japan must “accept more migrants, which would make society more open to multiple cultures and ... to accepting more refugees.”
The first ministry survey into discrimination against foreigners, released in March, found that 30 percent said they had been on the receiving end of discriminatory remarks.
One in four of the respondents that had sought employment believed they did not get the job because they were not Japanese.
“For us with our black skin, it is a bit difficult. Sometimes when I sit on the train, some Japanese switch seats,” Liliane said, but added that she has never feared for her safety, which is a major concern for asylum seekers in Europe.
She said she was overlooked for teaching work, despite her fluency in English, when employers realized she is African.
Nonnon, who works in a nail salon, said she is being paid less than Japanese workers for doing the same job.
She contrasted her situation to that of family members who escaped to other countries.
“My relatives in America and Australia were given refugee status and they are naturalized. They can get a job, buy a house and travel overseas,” she said. “They can live as normal people. I want to live like a normal person.”
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