“But if I go back to Myanmar, they would kill me” Rohingya’s Life in Japan

On 31 March, Japan’s Immigration Control Bureau revealed the number of people accepted as refugees in 2020. Among 3,936 applications, which was sharply decreased by 62 percent from 2019 due to COVID-19, just 47 people acquired refugee status. No, there is no typo here. Only forty-seven, I wrote. In fact, Japan has been always notorious for its hyper strict immigration system. Every single year, the Immigration Control Bureau permitted around one percent amongst thousands or ten thousands of applications. Many NGOs in both Japan and abroad, governments and people have criticized, showed concern and got angry about this situation for long time. Not wanting to be called “uncooperative in international affairs”, Japan finally made up its mind to accept more foreign people under difficult situation; so please wait, there are more people than 47.

Japan also permit foreign residence for humanitarian regard. In 2020, the number of accepted people in this kind was 44. Well, it seems you didn’t really have to wait; I guess I made you waste your time. So over all, Japan accepted 91 people for refugees or foreign residents amongst 3,936 refugee applications. Both status are apparently similar, but those who are permitted “foreign residence for humanitarian regard” practically do not have refugee status. That means that they still have possibility of deportation to their original countries meanwhile refugees are protected by “non-refoulement (not being forced to return dangerous place)” principle. More surprisingly, the percentage of refugee acceptation in Japan has been below one percent for 8 years (2012-2019). Japan in the past accepted approximately 11,000 “boat people” during Vietnam War but no one remembers what to do today. For instance, no refugee applicants from Myanmar, which ranks second place in the nationality of refugee applicants, were permitted for residence in Japan while Syrians and Yemenis are both 14 (it doesn’t mean all of them were accepted as refugees; the number also contains permitted foreign residents).

“But if I go back to Myanmar, they would kill me.”

Khin (name changed for security reasons) told us with an edge to his voice. He is a Rohingya from Yangon living in Japan with his wife and two sons for 20 years. His life story is like this: he got caught by the military for participating in an anti-governmental demonstration in 1988 when he was 14 years old. He was hit on the back of the head by the stock of rifle, stabbed in his neck and fainted away in the fear of death. He was arrested for one week with never-ending violence by the military. Losing consciousness uncountable times, he found himself in his home without knowing what happened after getting beaten. After that, the military came again to arrest him; however, his mother let him escape and his brother instead got arrested, which eventually led him to serving in prison for one year.

While his brother was in prison, he moved from Yangon to a countryside where his mother grew up. Once his brother came back to home, he also enjoyed reunion with his family. On the other hand, the situation around Rohingya never turned better. In 1997, he used a broker and acquired passport — basically, Myanmar regime does not admit Rohingya to be its people; that is, Rohingya people do not possess nationality. “I’m not sure if this passport is real one,” Khin said.

He was also a member of National League for Democracy (NLD), which is the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2000, he heard a rumor that any NLD member would be arrested in the near future. His uncle arranged a flight to South Korea and he spent one year there. South Korea then, however, did not have any domestic law specializing in refugees. One day, he heard that Japan accepts those who forced to leave their country as refugees — which was not really accurate as you know — so he made up his mind to go out of Korea. But here is a fun fact: South Korea enacted the Refugee Law in 2013 while Japan still examines refugee applicants with the Immigration Control Law, which is basically established for expelling illegal immigrants (well, here is one more fun fact: despite new law, South Korea gives few permits for refugees just like Japan).

“I couldn’t speak Japanese then. I didn’t know how to apply for refugee status.”

Anyway, he arrived in Japan and started to live in Tokyo in 2001, believing his new blight life there. However, his very first home was the Immigration Center. It might sound like he was in a facility for examining refugee status, but in fact, this “Immigration Center” means jail. Actually, he got taken into custody as an illegal immigrant suspect instead of cared as a refugee. This case could seem special happening for you, but sadly, this kind of human rights abuse is an everyday routine in Japan. Thanks to Japanese NGO, he made himself out of jail soon. His first refugee application was handed to the Immigration Control Bureau of Japan in 2004, after he moved to Gunma prefecture, which has the largest Rohingya community in Japan. However, this attempt was defied without telling the reason — it is also, actually, a very common incident here in Japan. According to Khin, they told him that he could easily go back to Myanmar because he possessed Burmese passport even though it was acquired by very legally suspicious means. On the other hand, it is generally easy to get sheltered as a refugee if you are Rohingya in most of countries. Why is Japanese refugee acknowledgement so difficult?

As I implied before, Japan does not have any domestic law specialized in refugees. All the refugee applicants are examined by the Immigration Control Law of Japan while many other countries, especially those which ratify the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, each have “Refugee Laws”. There are some reasons why Japan does not have the specific law: the very first reason — which is what I really don’t want to write here because of shame — is that Japanese people themselves take not much interest in refugees around the world. Due to “the island country mentality,” Japanese people only have interests in domestic affairs; thus, the Japanese media have always covered domestic news; eventually, politicians rarely pledges solutions of international issues because it has nothing to do with elections. Simply, Japanese politics does not really take care of the worldwide issues.

Secondly, there is a strange character in Japanese refugee acknowledgement system: just like the law, there is no governmental organization which judges who are refugees or not. In this condition, refugees are sweepingly examined with immigrants, overstaying foreigners and smugglers. Therefore, the job of the Immigration Control Bureau is rather to “control and strict foreign people” than to “protect refugees”. Originally, what the Immigration Control Bureau should do is if he or she can simply has the right to enter the country; then an independent and third-party organization like refugee bureau should examine if he or she can be stay in Japan as a refugee. The problem here in Japan is that the Immigration Control Bureau has to do all the jobs regarding refugees.

Last but not least, Japanese standard to permit refugee residence is too harder than the other countries. Each refugee has to objectively prove that he or she was persecuted in his or her country — which is unbelievably difficult for them who ran away with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Even if you escaped from Sana’a in Yemen, Ghouta in Syria or Gaza in Palestine, your country of origin information (COI) helps nothing in applying for refugee status in Japan. Instead, what you have to do is to prove yourself to be persecuted for your religion, ethnicity and/or political view and oppressed personally. Yes, you are not refugee at all unless your government knows yourself and tries to hurt or kill you. According to Japanese government, even if random soldiers came to your home and threatened you 100 times, you are not in danger when your government really does not know you individually.

“Nothing has changed from the situation in Myanmar.”

Khin was arrested 3 times in Japan. No, he never hurt someone or stole something; he was arrested just because he went out of Gunma prefecture without telling the city office. He has spent most of his life in Japan under “temporary release” because he is not a refugee so far; it technically means that he is under arrest for “illegal” staying for 20 years. Under “temporary release,” you have to report to city office when you want to go out of where you live and present yourself at the Immigration Control Bureau once in a month. “If you killed somebody, you would be caught, put on trial and imprisoned for fixed years. But look at me, no one knows how many years I have to wait — I did nothing bad. It doesn’t make sense at all,” he said.

He is now applying for his refugee status for the third time. At least, he does not have to worry about deportation during refugee application; so far, Japanese law does not allow deporting those who are currently applying for refugee status. However, here is the news: the Japanese Immigration Control Law is about to change — in a bad way. The new correction of the law says that you cannot apply for refugee status more than twice; at the third or more time, you could be deported if you didn’t have “new proper reason” to prove. Japanese government insists that there are so many illegal immigrants suspects who try to extend their stay in Japan by applying for refugee status. Meanwhile, Japan doesn’t consider COI at all. Listen to him: “I have no idea why Japan doesn’t permit refugee status though it should understand what’s going on in my country. I’m going to be killed if I go back to Myanmar.”

Japanese government also announces to expand the coverage of “humanitarian regard” in foreign residence. But wait, it means that Japanese government thinks they have no concern even if they go back to their country because they are not persecuted or oppressed there. If so, they should get refugee status… Obviously, this makes no sense. “I can’t get a job here. I’d go anywhere other than Myanmar if Japan wishes. But… I have family here. I’d like to live my life here in Japan,” he faltered out.

2 responses to ““But if I go back to Myanmar, they would kill me” Rohingya’s Life in Japan

  1. Japan’s immigration policy is a longstanding issue that rarely gets attention. Thanks for spotlighting the dreadful state of limbo afflicting people seeking asylum there. This update to the law is a crisis in the making.

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