Kyoko Hasegawa and Natsuko Fukue, AFP, May 3, 2017
It has been a decade since Liliane last saw her little girl. She fled Africa in fear for her life, leaving behind everything she knew and loved in the hope of a fresh start in Japan.
Today, she scrapes a living from dead-end jobs, and what Japanese she knows has been snatched from television shows. There is little government help for people like her: free language courses are limited, social housing is hard to find, discrimination is rife.
Yet Liliane is regarded as one of the lucky ones — she was granted refugee status in Japan, a country which refuses more than 99 percent of cases.
“It has not been easy,” she tells AFP, speaking under a pseudonym.
She adds: “Here they do not pay for your studies, they do not help you to get bank loans, or give you social housing… we are left to ourselves, we have to fight alone.”
Anti-refugee sentiment is rising in Europe and the United States but in Japan those seeking haven from tyranny and war have long faced daunting legal and social gauntlets.
One of the world’s wealthiest countries, Japan accepted just 28 refugees in 2016 — one more than the previous year — out of the 8,193 applications reviewed by the Immigration Bureau.
Assisted by the UN, Liliane was able to claim asylum on arrival in Japan stating that her life was in danger due to tribal conflict back home. It took two years for officials to accept her as a refugee, a period during which she received assistance from the Catholic Church and charities.
But she feels the status brought few benefits. She is no closer to reuniting with her child — now a teenager, her daughter has repeatedly been denied a permit to even visit.
For Liliane, further education and a stable life, seem out of reach.
She explains: “Japan is a very difficult country for foreigners. The language is really a handicap for us. You need to do absolutely everything to try to speak in Japanese but you don’t know where to find free lessons.”
“Sometimes I think refugee status has no meaning,” she sighs.
Critics also say current government policy ignores the country’s need for immigrants as the population shrinks.
“Japan has kept a mindset of closing doors to foreigners as it is an island nation that until recently had ample population,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former Justice Ministry official who heads a pro-immigration think tank.
The population is set to decline to 87 million by 2060 from 127 million today.
He added that Japan must “accept more migrants, which would make society more open to multiple cultures and… to accepting more refugees”.