Just 0.1% of asylum seekers won the right to remain, as campaigners say ‘door has been closed’ to those in need
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Japan accepted just 20 asylum seekers last year – despite a record 19,628 applications – drawing accusations that the country is unfairly closing its door on people in genuine need.
Since 2010, Japan has granted work permits to asylum seekers with valid visas to work while their refugee claims were reviewed, a change the government says has fuelled a dramatic rise in “bogus” applications from people who are simply seeking work.
According to figures released this week, the number of applicants in 2017 rose 80% from a year earlier, when 28 out of almost 11,000 requests were recognised.
Among the thousands of people whose applications have been turned down is Jean-Claude Hitimana, who arrived in 2001 after fleeing ethnic violence in his home country of Burundi.
Seventeen years on, Hitimana remains in legal limbo – a victim, campaigners say, of Japan’s strict policy towards refugees, and a wider resistance to immigration.
Hitimana, a Hutu, had been thrown on to a pile of burning tyres after refusing to join the fight against the Tutsi. He escaped, but the incident, which left him with burns to his right leg, convinced him he could never return.
“At that time I was just a simple person selling maize and peanuts on the street. I had no idea what they were fighting for,” he told the Guardian in an interview near his home east of Tokyo.
His attorney, Masako Suzuki, said government policy was punishing genuine asylum seekers.
“Jean-Claude should have been recognised as an asylum seeker by now,” she said. “It’s incredible that the immigration authorities have not even given him humanitarian status considering that ethnic violence in Burundi has worsened dramatically since 2016.”
Recent changes indicate Japan is getting even tougher. In an attempt to reduce the number of applicants, the government last month started limiting the right to work only to those it regards as genuine asylum seekers.
Repeat applicants, and those who fail initial screenings, risk being held in immigration detention centres after their permission to stay in Japan expires.
Eri Ishikawa, head of the Japan Association for Refugees, said the new regulation was part of a wider crackdown on refugees under the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Abe courted controversy in 2015 when he said Japan should improve the lives of its own people – particularly women and the elderly – before accepting refugees from Syria.
Campaigners have contrasted his tough stance on asylum seekers with his recent visit to Lithuania, where he paid tribute to a wartime Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who is credited with saving the lives of an estimated 6,000 Jewish people in 1940 by issuing them with Japanese visas.
“The government assumes that some people are applying for refugee status just to obtain a work permit in Japan,” said Ishikawa, whose group helps 700 people, mainly from countries in Africa, whose asylum applications have been turned down.
“The door has been closed to people applying for asylum. That worries us because among them are genuine asylum seekers.”
Japan’s immigration detention centres have been criticised for their harsh treatment of detainees. At least 10 people have died in the centres since 2006, including four suicides. In 2016, more than 40 detainees went on hunger strike at a facility in Osaka to protest against their living conditions and poor standards of medical care.
“Conditions at the centres are harsh, and there is no limit on how long people can be detained,” Ishikawa said. “People are usually given provisional release after a year, but they are not allowed to work and they are not entitled to any social security benefits.”
Despite experiencing its worst labour shortage for 44 years, Japan is unlikely to overcome a deep-seated cultural resistance to significant immigration, she added. “The government doesn’t like the word immigration: it sounds permanent and that’s why some people are resisting it. They are worried that it would change the nature of Japanese society.”
Today, Hitimana still experiences pain from burns to his leg. He has not seen his parents or two sisters since he fled Burundi.
He arrived in Tokyo in January 2001 on a 90-day tourist visa, relieved to have found what he thought would be a safe haven. He initially slept in a car and earned a modest living working in a spare parts yard. He said he had no idea he had overstayed his visa until he was questioned by immigration authorities.
The 48-year-old, who believes his life would be at immediate risk in Burundi, has spent months at a time in immigration detention centres, most recently in 2011. He is now awaiting the outcome of his third application for asylum.
His failure to seek asylum as soon as he arrived in Japan means he is banned from working and his movements are strictly monitored. He spends his days volunteering at a Catholic church in Tokyo and studying Japanese.
But he is grateful for the kindness shown to him by ordinary people, including the couple who have taken him into their home while immigration authorities decide his future.
“The Japanese people I know have been so kind to me,” he said. “I can’t believe how well they have treated me.
“They took me in like a member of their own family. Without them, I have no idea what would have become of me. This is what it means to be living in a peaceful country.”