Tokyo, Japan – When Jamal, a 25-year-old Syrian, was granted refugee status in Japan, one of the first things he did was go back to playing football. “Soccer is my dream, you know, to be professional,” says the Syrian refugee, who joined two Tokyo football teams.
While at university in Damascus, Jamal played in the 1st division of the Syrian football league, but never felt he could progress. Even before the war, the Bashar al-Assad government was “controlling everything, even the national team”, he says.
“If I was still in Syria, I wouldn’t have the choice to become professional,” says Jamal, who only wants to reveal part of his name. “But here [in Japan] they appreciate talent, any good thing you do.”
Nearly recovered from a pulled hamstring, he is due soon to audition for a spot in the Japan Football League (J-League).
He has also found other opportunities in Japan. Sitting earlier this year in a cafeteria in Tokyo’s Meiji University, where he’s a scholarship student, Jamal talks about his other pursuits – becoming fluent in Japanese and learning Spanish among them. But none of this was possible until 2015, when Jamal, his mother and teenage sister were granted refugee status, and with it some stability.
“Everyone was not expecting us to get it … even our lawyer,” Jamal says. “But we were lucky.”
Despite being one of the most generous government donors to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – Japan was ranked the fourth biggest contributor in 2016 after the US, the EU and Germany – it has long been closed to immigration and reluctant to accept refugees.
Geographically isolated and culturally homogenous, Japan isn’t an obvious refuge for Syrians fleeing the war. Between 2011 and 2016, 69 Syrians sought asylum in Japan – just seven have got it. Though far fewer asylum seekers come to Japan than Germany, for instance, they are diverse, victims of not just the well-known conflicts in Syria or Iraq, but lesser-known violence and persecution in Africa and Asia. Since 1982 – Japan signed the UN refugee convention in 1981 and enacted its refugee recognition law the following year – the country has accepted nearly 700 refugees.
Applications have risen sharply over recent years, but recognition rates remain low. In 2016, a record 10,901 people applied or appealed rejected asylum claims, with the highest number of applicants coming from Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines and Turkey. Japan accepted 28, or less than one percent of applicants. The previous year, Jamal was one of 27. And while he spent a year and a half in uncertainty, many asylum seekers, unable to put down roots, wait years for a result – often indefinitely.
Building a life in Japan
Jamal’s family fled Damascus in 2013 after surviving a bombing that destroyed their house. His father remained in Qatar, where he worked as a baker in a five-star hotel.
The three came to Japan via Cairo after Jamal’s uncle, who lived in Tokyo with his Japanese wife, helped secure visitors’ visas.
Asylum seekers are allowed to work for six months after applying for asylum. Hoping to afford an apartment for his family, Jamal found demolition work on the black market. Black market jobs in the construction sector are among the only means for asylum seekers who aren’t permitted to work to make a living.
It was a tough time. Jamal worked 12-hour days, bringing home 10,000 yen ($90) after every shift. He didn’t speak Japanese and wasn’t given any protective gear. Then he stepped on a rusty nail and contracted tetanus, and spent a week in hospital. His sister’s teachers pooled together money to pay for his medical bills.
Things got better after he got his work permit and he found a hospitality job. “After starting the restaurant job, I started listening, hearing, memorising, writing [Japanese] by myself,” Jamal says.
When Jamal got his refugee status, he was able to bring his father, who at that point had returned to Syria, to Japan. Then, he says, “I started thinking how I’m going to build my future.”
Jamal started language courses and taught English to Japanese kindergarteners. He won a scholarship to begin a bachelor’s degree in Meiji’s Global Japanese Studies programme where he studies Japanese culture and languages. “You know, among hundreds of students you need to be the first,” Jamal says of getting the scholarship. “I worked so hard.”
He now speaks conversational Japanese, gives interviews to local media and gets asked to talk about Syria at schools. Students often approach him, curious to know more. “I have now dozens of [Japanese] friends,” he says. “They are so kind.”
In a country where just two percent of the population is foreign, Jamal says he’s never faced open discrimination. But his sister, who is fluent in Japanese, has pulled up his interviews on YouTube and found comments that upset her. “Don’t teach our kids terrorism or your bad traditions” or “We don’t need refugees here” he says people wrote.
“I know there’s bad people everywhere and good people,” Jamal says, unfazed. Besides, “we’ve faced worse than this.”
‘Hard to survive’
One of the few organisations helping asylum seekers is Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), which does advocacy and provides legal, social, employment and other forms of assistance.
While many asylum seekers have previous links to the country, according to spokeswoman Shiho Tanaka, JAR finds most refugees don’t plan on coming to Japan but “just happened” to get a visa, despite applying for others. “That’s why they come to Japan, even though they have no friends and they don’t speak any Japanese,” she says. Once arriving, they apply for asylum.
JAR assists more than 700 refugees a year from about 66 countries, Tanaka says. About half come from African countries. “There is no support from the government for seeking for a job,” she says. “So you just try to survive by yourself. Try to find an apartment and try to find a job.”
The wait time for claims results is arduous. First-time applicants often wait more than a year, while appeals can take as long as three to five years. In February, the Ministry of Justice said it would speed up rejections.
Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer who has worked with asylum seekers for more than two decades, currently has more than 30 asylum seeker clients from countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Burundi and Congo.
It is “so hard to get the refugee status and if you succeed, it takes a long time … it is so hard to survive,” he says.
Proving persecution is the sticking point in recognition, according to Watanabe. “If there’s no evidence like that or something to prove, then there’s no case,” he says.
Japan’s strict interpretation of the UN refugee convention means that, contrary to UNHCR guidance, it doesn’t readily grant people fleeing war refugee status.
The criteria is very high, he says, pointing out that it’s unrealistic to expect someone fleeing to document the threats to their life.
“It’s so hard for the applicant to prove that – difficult and impossible,” he says. Or, he argues, immigration officers might acknowledge a risk to an asylum seeker’s life if they return, but “they still won’t accept, so this is really a big problem”. Persecuted minorities such as the stateless Rohingya, few of whom have been recognised, he says, are not viewed as being in need of protection. Turkish Kurds have been coming for a while, and some volunteered in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami relief efforts.
“Often asylum seekers describe circumstances or conditions or events that they were part of or victims of, that are not well known in Japan,” says Dirk Hebecker, UNHCR representative in Japan. He says the UNHCR is pushing for stronger research into the countries asylum seekers come from and to improve the level of interpretation in interviews.
He points out that a large number of people are allowed to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds. Last year, 97 people were granted this status, which is reviewed annually and doesn’t enable family members to join.
Hebecker says Japan’s immigration bureau also contend with a large number of “unfounded claims” from migrants wanting to stay legally and work in the country. “That clogs up the system,” he says.
Yasuhiro Hishida, assistent to the director of the immigration bureau’s Refugee Recognition Office, says their department follows the international obligations of the UN convention and decisions are not made politically about how many asylum seekers are recognised.
“We are not in a situation like Europe,” which is in the midst of a refugee crisis, he says, adding that Japan has fewer applicants than the EU from countries such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. He says Japan’s refugee recognition system is slowed down by a number of applicants looking to work or avoid deportation.
Hebecker says the UNHCR is confident that Japan is close to international refugee determination standards and moreover, that the people who need protection, get it. “That’s what counts, not numbers,” he says.
Japan’s system is a work in progress, he points out. Hebecker says it has less experience with asylum seekers than countries such as Germany, for instance, which last year approved more than 256,000 of 745,545 applications.
A decade in limbo
Muhamat Adula, a 37-year-old Rohingya Muslim, has lived in a state of deep uncertainty in Japan for more than a decade. He arrived in 2006 without a passport, and was imprisoned in detention centres for more than a year.
Adula, a quiet man with kind eyes, spoke to Al Jazeera at his home in Tatebayashi in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. He grew up in a predominantly Buddhist village in Mrauk U district, Rakhine state in Myanmar. He left because, as a member of the persecuted ethnic group, he couldn’t travel out of his village let alone pursue a university education, which is what he wanted to do. He paid a broker to go to Malaysia and then made his way to Japan.
His first asylum application was rejected partly on the ground that as a Rohingya Muslim, a community stripped of citizenship in Myanmar, he would not necessarily be persecuted. Adula filed his third application in October 2015 and is still awaiting a first interview. Asylum seekers are not deported while their claims are being processed.
Adula, who speaks broken Japanese, lives on provisional release from detention, which prohibits him from working or leaving Gunma Prefecture. He gets by with help from the local Rohingya community.
“I get quite stressed out because I worry about my situation and my family in Myanmar, so I walk to station, back and forth,” says Adula, who says he risks imprisonment if he returns home.
Adula suffers from high blood pressure, but without a legal status he can’t access national health insurance. It’s one of the hardest parts of his situation, he says.
“I just wish to work so I can pay tax and have freedom,” he says.
Adula is anxious about his future. “They [the immigration officers] always tell me ‘go home’ even I have no place to go,” he says, sadly. He stays, because, “I have no place to go.”
A small opening
Watanabe believes the government wants to look good to the international community by putting “big money” towards alleviating the global refugee crisis, but on its territory, “they’re just not opening the doors to them”.
“Our leading party is quite conservative so they [are] not really open to foreigners,” he says of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. “If the party changes it could be different.”
In late 2015, Abe said at the UN General Assembly that Japan needed more economic participation from women and the elderly and to address other issues such as raising the country’s birth rate, before “accepting immigrants or refugees”.
In January, when US President Donald Trump signed a now revised and blocked executive order barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US, Abe, unlike other leaders, chose not to comment.
Indeed, there are potential refugee concerns closer to home. In April, Abe told parliament that Japan is “preparing for situations where Japanese residents in the Korean peninsula will need to be protected or evacuated” if tensions with North Korea reached a head.
For refugees from elsewhere, Watanabe believes the government perpetuates “discrimination towards these countries – African, Southeast Asian [countries]”. He believes Japan needs to pull its weight in the global context by accepting far more refugees, pointing out it is “good for Japan’s security” as the country grapples with an aging population and shrinking workforce.
Last year, along with the aid package, Abe also announced that Japan would sponsor 150 university-educated Syrians who are UNHCR-registered refugees living in Jordan or Lebanon, over five years. The first intake arrives this summer and students will be able to bring their spouses and children and stay on after completing their studies.
The main objective is “to support Syrian refugees who have the potential to contribute to the construction of Syria in the future,” says Satoshi Murakami, from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is funding the programme.
For refugee advocates, this signals a small opening.
“It’s a very big step for the government,” Tanaka says, adding that she hopes it paves the way for accepting more refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
Jamal says even if he understands Japan is selective about who it accepts, it stands to gain from what refugees could contribute to the country.
He says the study programme, crucially, gives Syrians “the chance to continue their future”.
After losing everything and building a new life in Japan, which is now home, Jamal says he wouldn’t return to Syria. “I cannot start again,” he reflects.
He’s making the most of his life here, he adds. “You feel bad if you miss any opportunities after being through all of this,” he says.
With additional reporting by Shiori Ito.