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Friday, Dec. 23, 2011

Donations help NPOs back asylum seekers in Japan

Staff writer
Last in a series

The March 11 disasters highlighted the vulnerability of asylum seekers in Japan, according to a nonprofit organization that supports refugees.

News photo
News service: Members of the Japan Association for Refugees visit a community of Ugandan refugees in Chiba Prefecture after the March 11 disasters to check on their safety and give them an update on the unfolding events. COURTESY OF THE JAPAN ASSOCIATION FOR REFUGEES

Although the disasters did not directly affect the support systems for those seeking asylum, the lack of information — especially in their native languages — in the aftermath and at the start of the Fukushima nuclear crisis caused many to experience extreme anxiety, the Japan Association for Refugees said.

"When these kinds of disasters happen, refugees are placed in a highly vulnerable position by their lack of access to information, just as in times of significant social upheaval," said Mihoko Kashima, a spokeswoman for the Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo-based NPO.

Part of the donations sent to The Japan Times Readers' Fund last year were allocated to JAR, which used them to extend financial assistance to four asylum seekers, including a Sri Lankan who lost his part-time job because of the traumatic events and couldn't afford a ticket to visit a regional immigration office. JAR used donations from the readers' fund to cover his travel expenses.

JAR members started visiting refugees a few days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated Tohoku, and found that many of their greatest fears were caused by their inability to comprehend what was going on around them. Not being able to understand why bottled water was disappearing from store shelves, or how the schedule worked for the rolling blackouts introduced after the twin disasters knocked out the Fukushima No. 1 plant, generated a deep sense of confusion among many refugees, Kashima said.

The association tried to keep asylum seekers updated with the latest news and to provide them with as much information as possible in various languages, she said, but covering all the events that unfolded proved impossible.

Even at the best of times, many asylum seekers feel cut off from the rest of society due to their inability to communicate in Japanese, but the language barrier made them feel even more isolated after March 11, Kashima said.

The ability to converse with Japanese neighbors or officials and find out from them what was going on would have significantly eased their fears, Kashima said.

But many of these people lack knowledge of even basic Japanese phrases as they can't afford to pay for language lessons and the government doesn't provide any tuition until they are granted refugee status, she said.

"The government should provide a stronger safety net," she said.

JAR initially forecast a drop in applicants seeking refugee status in light of the March disasters and nuclear crisis, but the number of applications is actually on course to exceed the record high of 1,599 set in fiscal 2008, she said.

Kashima also called for the Immigration Control Law to be revised because "the number of asylum seekers has been surpassing the 1,000 mark (since 2008)" — far more than anticipated when the law was drafted.

Part of The Japan Times Readers' Fund last year was also donated to Ajia Yuko-no Ie (Friendly Asians Home), an NPO that has provided support to those seeking asylum for more than 30 years, mostly to refugees from Myanmar.

With money from the readers' fund, FAH, based in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, bought a minibike for its members to use, trimming its transportation expenses.

The bike also came in handy during FAH's efforts to confirm the safety of refugees from Myanmar after the March 11 megaquake caused all train services in Tokyo to be suspended, according to its director, Kazuo Kimura.

The group also used the money to support two individuals who lacked sufficient funds to pay for medical treatment at hospitals.

FAH was forced to shut down last month, as it was unable to raise enough funds to cover its operating costs after the death of its founder, Taeko Kimura.

Donations can be made via bank transfer or check. For bank transfers, send to the following bank account: Shinbashi branch of Mizuho Bank, "futsu koza" 1393499 (account name is The Japan Times dokusha no Nanmin Enjo Kikin). Checks should be made out to The Japan Times Readers' Charity Fund, c/o The Japan Times head office (4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato Ward, Tokyo, 108-8071). For more information, call (03) 3453-5312.

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