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Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009

Asylum-seekers facing destitution

Long wait for processing, lack of funds forcing many refugees into grim survival game


Staff writer

Laurent Kirobi came to Japan from a west African country and is seeking political asylum. Exactly a year has passed since he applied to the Immigration Bureau, but he still hasn't been called for an interview to determine whether he is eligible.

News photo
Nothing else to do: Asylum-seekers who have been cut off from government aid while awaiting their interviews watch TV at a temporary shelter set up in Chiba Prefecture by the Japan Association for Refugees in late July. SETSUKO KAMIYA PHOTO

"I don't know why it takes so long," said Kirobi, whose real name is being withheld in light of his delicate situation. His visa already has expired, which is not unusual for asylum-seekers.

After applying for refugee status, Kirobi, who is in his early 30s, sought financial support from the Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), a Foreign Ministry-affiliated body. As most asylum-seekers are not allowed to work, the humanitarian aid from RHQ is the only means people in his position have to survive.

Kirobi received RHQ support for eight months but his request for a four-month extension was rejected. He was cut off in May.

After April, dozens of asylum-seekers have found themselves in the same situation due to a change in the way the government doles out its limited funds. Priority is given to those considered the neediest.

The triage highlights the jump in asylum-seekers last year, which hit a record high of 1,599, or nearly double the 816 who applied in 2008.

The Foreign Ministry managed to win an increase in the humanitarian aid budget this year but it is still insufficient. While the bureaucrats say they are doing what they can, nongovernment organizations insist they should be doing more.

To deal with the jump in refugees, the NGOs are running a fundraising campaign to help those cut off from government aid. At the same time, they are pushing the government to consider extending the periods of assistance or allowing asylum-seekers to work so they can survive until their interviews.

Without a working permit or friends, Kirobi nearly went homeless after his aid was cut off. He was saved by the Japan Association for Refugees, which provided him emergency shelter in Chiba Prefecture that was set up in July with donations. There are 11 people at the shelter, but JAR says many more potential candidates are likely to surface.

Desperate for a means to live, some asylum-seekers risk their status and look for jobs to support themselves, but Kirobi said he is afraid of doing that. "I don't want to be caught. I just stay and wait," he said.

Nearly half of those seeking shelter in Japan are from Myanmar, where the crackdown by the junta in 2007 increased the flow of refugees. Others include Turkish Kurds and Sri Lankans, but more Africans have been visible since the G8 summit in Hokkaido last year, where Japan voiced strong support for mineral-rich Africa, experts said.

Those working closely with the refugee hopefuls estimate that applicant numbers this year will be similar to last year's.

Seeking asylum in Japan is daunting. Applicants are basically not permitted to work, do not receive health insurance and are ineligible for public assistance.

Instead, the Foreign Ministry funnels financial support to those in dire need via RHQ. Adults receive ¥1,500 a day and children receive ¥750. If housing is needed, a family can receive a maximum of ¥60,000 a month for rent, while singles can get ¥40,000. This is all less than what a Japanese citizen on welfare would get.

The support lasts four months in principle but was being extended by an average of 9.3 months until last year.

According to the ministry, an average of 95 people received support each month in 2007. But in 2008 that jumped to 211.

In December, the ministry saw its ¥65 million refugee support budget run out, three months before the end of the fiscal year. in an emergency move, the ministry got permission from the Finance Ministry and diverted other funds that were not being used at the time to continue supporting the refugees, said Mitsuko Shino, director of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Division.

Thus, the actual amount of money spent for the refugee support fund totaled ¥147 million in fiscal 2008, she said.

For fiscal 2009 that began in April, the Foreign Ministry managed to raise the refugee aid budget to ¥190 million, up 67 percent from the previous year, said Shino, who admitted it's still not sufficient for the number of asylum-seekers.

"We had to prioritize those whose lives would be in serious danger if they didn't receive these funds" to keep the aid running within the budget, Shino said.

In April, the ministry set up criteria for handing out aid and put priority on those who are seriously ill, pregnant or caring for a child under 12 months old, children under 15 and people older than 60, and those who had visas when they applied for asylum.

In April, before the new criteria were implemented, 263 people got aid. That dropped to 174 in May, Shino said.

JAR estimates the new criteria will force around 100 more asylum-seekers to be cut off and go homeless any day now.

In late June, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations stated that the Justice Ministry should allow asylum-seekers provisional stay permits so they can work. They also called for legislation allowing all asylum-seekers to work.

But a Justice Ministry official said the government would stick firmly to its current rules.

"We won't change this policy because overstayers may abuse that rule and apply for refugee status with the aim of getting work," said the official, who declined to be named.

She admitted the refugee application process takes an average of one to two years, which has often been criticized as unreasonably long.

"What we must do is speed up the administration process to accept or reject the applications," she said, adding that the ministry has added 10 more employees to help out.

Supporters are skeptical this will help.

"If the government cannot decide whether to give refugee status or not in six months, then that's its responsibility," said Hiroaki Ishii, deputy secretary general of JAR. "They should at least give asylum-seekers working permits."

JAR and other groups, including the Catholic Tokyo International Center and Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, will continue fundraising efforts until the end of September.

Meanwhile, all Kirobi can do is wait. Unlike many asylum-seekers who end up in detention centers for overstaying their visas, Kirobi somehow escaped that fate. "I hear it's really terrible, so I'm very lucky. It's like God was with me," he said.

But with no money and no job, Kirobi says he feels physical freedom may be the only advantage he has.

"Even if you are outside, when you have nothing, you can't do anything. And you can go crazy," he said.

Those interested in donating to the support fund for asylum-seekers can find the details at www.refugee.or.jp/



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