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Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians.  Others’ reception was less warm: NPR


A Japanese course for Ukrainian refugees in Yokohama on June 29.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians.  Others’ reception was less warm: NPR

A Japanese course for Ukrainian refugees in Yokohama on June 29.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

YOKOHAMA, Japan — A dozen Ukrainian students sit in a classroom studying basic Japanese to help them navigate life in a new country. Among them, Sergei Litvinov, a 29-year-old training leader, who arrived in June. He says he has been listening to Japanese rock music since he was a teenager.

Coming to Japan is “a dream come true,” he laughs. “But I’m not happy, because it’s a terrible story in Ukraine.”

Litvinov is one of about 2,000 Ukrainians temporarily admitted to Japan since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to Japan’s Justice Ministry.

Ukrainians were received with an outpouring of sympathy and hospitality in the country. “It was the first time I had received so many phone calls and emails from the company, wanting to help refugees from Ukraine,” says Kazuko Fushimi, who handles public relations at the Japan Association. for refugees, based in Tokyo.

But Japan’s warm welcome to Ukrainians contrasts with how it has treated other foreigners fleeing conflict and persecution over the years, according to human rights groups. Of Of 169 Afghans who fled to Japan after the Taliban took over in August 2021, 58 returned to Afghanistan “due to what they say was pressure and a lack of support from the Japanese Foreign Ministry”, reported Japanese news service Kyodo last month.

For now, the Japanese government has granted Ukrainians residence and work permits for up to one year. But for those in other countries, it’s often a years-long struggle to gain similar benefits and privileges.

The central government provided visas and work permits. Local governments provided food, housing and subsistence allowances.

Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians.  Others’ reception was less warm: NPR

Ukrainian refugees arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on April 5.

Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters


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Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians.  Others’ reception was less warm: NPR

Ukrainian refugees arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on April 5.

Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Litvinov is among a group of 70 Ukrainians sent to the port city of Yokohama – 27 km from the Japanese capital Tokyo – where local authorities are providing temporary accommodation, food and living expenses.

Significantly, Japan does not call Ukrainians refugees, but “evacuees”. This is because Tokyo expects them all to eventually return home.

Historically, Japan accepts very few refugees. Last year it granted refugee status to just 74 applicants – the highest number on record, but less than 1% of total applicants, according to the Japan Association for Refugees.

Some in Japan view their country as mono-ethnic – not a nation of immigrants. But the idea is debated.

Human rights groups and refugee advocates say the system is deliberately designed to set the bar high for successful asylum claims. Refugees seeking asylum in Japan must prove that they are at risk of persecution in their country.

Heydar Safari Diman has been trying to do just that for over 30 years, ever since fleeing Iran to Japan, which he became interested in watching TV series and movies, including the films of director Akira Kurosawa. He would not say exactly what persecution he faced in Iran, as he fears it could endanger his family members still in the country.

But authorities have repeatedly rejected his offers of refugee status. They held him for more than four years in total without any explanation, he says, in what he calls hellish conditions.

“I like Japan and the Japanese people, but I hate those in the detention center,” he said, speaking fluent Japanese. “How could they intimidate us like that? What have we done ? We are refugees. I don’t have a criminal record.

In 2019, Safari Diman was one of approximately 100 detainees who went on hunger strikes to protest their detention. Safari Diman says he fell into a deep depression and thought about ending his life.

“It takes a lot of courage to kill yourself. It’s very difficult to kill yourself in there. And I didn’t have that courage,” he says.

Tokyo-based lawyer Chie Komai, who represents Safari Diman and others seeking to stay in Japan, took her case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2019. She argued that the His client’s detention was arbitrary because Japanese immigration authorities can detain foreigners indefinitely. , without any judicial review.

The UN task force agreed with her. “They have made it clear that Japan’s immigration detention system violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The Japanese government opposed the findings of the UN working group, saying they were “based on factual errors” and contesting the arbitrary nature of its detentions. But he did not dispute the details of Safari Diman’s case. He is now on what is called “provisional release” and has not been detained since the decision.

Safari Diman, who lives in Japan on donations from friends and supporters, says he doesn’t expect the kind of benefits Ukrainians enjoy.

“I’m not asking Japanese taxpayers to support me,” he says. “If the authorities recognize me as a refugee, I will work and pay taxes.”

Other cases have also fueled the debate over Japan’s treatment of refugees. They include the death in a migrant detention center last year of Sri Lankan Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, 33, detained for overstaying her visa.

Prosecutors have dropped charges against immigration officials accused of being responsible for his death.

In a separate case, a Japanese court last month ordered the government to compensate the family of a 43-year-old Cameroonian man who died in a migrant detention center in 2014.

The outcry over deaths in immigration detention centers appears to have prompted the government to drop controversial amendments to immigration laws. The amendments would have made it easier for the government to deport foreigners whose applications for refugee status had failed.

Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians.  Others’ reception was less warm: NPR

Poorima Sandamali carries a picture of her sister, Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who died while detained by Japanese immigrants in 2021, as she goes to Nagoya District Court to file a lawsuit against the Japanese government on March 4.

JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images


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JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians.  Others’ reception was less warm: NPR

Poorima Sandamali carries a picture of her sister, Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who died while detained by Japanese immigrants in 2021, as she goes to Nagoya District Court to file a lawsuit against the Japanese government on March 4.

JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

The Japanese government has announced that it will provide financial assistance to Ukrainians for an additional six months. The double standard is not lost on officials like Kazuhiro Suzuki, a Yokohama city official who is involved in running the program for Ukrainians.

“We only supported the Ukrainian evacuees,” he said, watching the students from a corner of the classroom. “While the situation of refugees from other countries has not changed.”

He adds: “Every day we continue to work, but this discrepancy bothers us.”

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Yokohama.


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