Japan seems like a peaceful country, just like this scenery - but what's happening to the refugees at the same time? (Photo by Mayu Amioka)


Double refugees in Japan: Are their voices heard?

What challenges do refugees face in their home country, and now in Japan?
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/mayuamioka/" target="_self">Mayu Amioka</a>

Mayu Amioka

August 11, 2023

Everyone has a story to tell, but the story of a refugee applicant in Japan is not a normal story. It is nothing but extraordinary, and their stories, I believe, are something I have to share. People must pay attention to the issue of double refugees, which is often neglected in Japan.

I will kick off with an explanation of double refugees.

A double refugee is an asylum seeker running away from their home country who faces persecution in the nation they flee to. This happens too often in Japan. The majority of the asylum seekers applying for refugee status are not accepted. In fact, out of the 2413 refugee-status applicants, only 74 were accepted.

Those who were rejected are housed in the infamous immigration detention centers, for overstaying without a status of residence. This center is notorious for violating fundamental and inalienable rights, sexual abuse, and failing to provide hygienic conditions. Although there exists a system where detainees are temporarily released from detention, they are still disabled from working, making it financially impossible to live independently. 

To make this issue simpler to comprehend, it means that double refugees are either persecuted through restriction of basic human rights or inhibition of labor and, simultaneously, unable to return to their home country.

I came to become involved in this issue through a monthly medical consultation and soup run activity, which I have participated in for nearly a year. As a volunteer, I witnessed an often neglected reality and made meaningful encounters with various social workers, as well as doctors using their expertise.

I met with a director of an anti-poverty organization, nicknamed Y for the sake of this article. Y owns a shelter for people experiencing homelessness and foreign asylum seekers. He let me tag alone with him, to a shelter for asylum seekers. Here, I will share you the voices of asylum seekers, and some shrewd insights Y provided me regarding the double refugee issue.

In the shelter, I was introduced to two asylum seekers; I will call them B and E. They were both persecuted in their home countries in central Africa: one for religious and the other for political justifications. They were both former detainees of the immigration detention center, and are currently on provisional release, because of COVID-19. The center released many to reduce close contact and prevent mass infection of the virus. Nevertheless, both B and E are not permitted to work, so their survival depends on Y, who owns the shelter.

In addition to all of this stress, asylum seekers are also unable to receive medical insurance. Being forbidden to work and not entitled to receive social welfare and medical insurance, they have to pay double or triple the standard medical fare. Hospitals are often reluctant to provide care and offer a diagnosis. Nevertheless, some hospitals are providing free or low-cost medical services. One of the doctors who works there weekly pointed out how many are suffering from high blood pressure and hyperuricemia, due to low levels of nutrition and lack of exercise.

B, a female refugee who was formerly held in the immigration detention center until early 2020, regularly experiences panic attacks before her monthly status interview at the detention center. During an interview, she revealed her fear of being forcibly accommodated in the detention center once again, and that this distress is slowly killing her insides. After learning Japanese from the animated series Chibi Maruko-Chan, she is working to become a caregiver in a senior citizen’s home. She can not return to her home country because of the ongoing discrimination against women. Still, the current Japanese system does not allow her to pursue her dreams.

Y says the biggest issue is the concentration of authority that the detention centers have. Currently, they decide who is and is not held, and the process has not been subject to judicial review. The center exists outside of Japanese human rights law, facilitating illegal arrest and activity. 

Japan was recently warned by the United Nations Commission of Human Rights about its immigration detention center. The organization objected to the indefinite duration accommodation of asylum seekers, the inadequate medical system, and its inhumane treatment of people. This demonstrates the difference in understanding of human rights between Japanese standards and global standards. Hopefully, this message from the UN will encourage a shift in Japanese law and system.