I recently tuned into a press conference held by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on April 21, 2022, where refugee assistance experts called for refugees from Afghanistan and other conflict areas to be given similar support offered to Ukrainians. The speakers were Reiko Ogawa, Refugee Assessor at Japan’s Ministry of Justice, and Norimasa Orii, Chair of Pathways Japan, an organization that opens new opportunities for refugee students through education. They are both part of Actions for Afghans (AFA), a coalition of non-governmental organizations that has supported the smooth evacuation and resettlement of Afghans since August 2021.
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021, many Afghans were targeted for their religion, gender, political opinions, and employment. Among those targeted for their jobs were those working in the former government, civil society, and foreign organizations promoting human rights. Since that August, around 600 Afghan evacuees have arrived in Japan on short-term visas. For context, “evacuees” is the term used by the Japanese government for those coming to Japan on 90-day short-term visas. On the other hand, “refugees” can stay in the country for five years, but very few people are granted that status.
Similarly, the Japanese government has accepted around 500 Ukrainian evacuees (as of April) following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, unlike their Afghan counterparts, the government was quick to offer them financial aid, even promising counseling and language support. While astonished at this unprecedented offer, the speakers urged that Japan extend the same support to Afghan refugees, who are no different from Ukrainians in having to flee violence and persecution.
Who is Japan Letting In?
The Japanese government initially identified only employees of its embassy in Afghanistan, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and Japanese NGOs as eligible for evacuation to Japan. This is because Afghans who worked directly or indirectly with the Japanese government would be “perceived as being associated” with Japan and thus be at risk under Taliban authorities, according to Human Rights Watch. Labeled “infidels” by the Taliban, they face a serious risk of death threats, night raids, abduction, and even execution. Affiliation with Japan is likely dangerous because Japan is a close ally of the U.S., whose military toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The Japanese government has been slow at evacuating other Afghans at risk, such as former and current students who studied in Japan. More than 1,400 Afghan students have studied in Japanese universities on a government scholarship in the past years. Since 2003, Japan’s Ministry of Education has issued these scholarships with the hope that scholarship graduates would return to Afghanistan with the tools to contribute to Afghanistan’s political and economic development.
Upon their return, many worked in Afghan government ministries or taught as faculty members in Afghan universities. Having attained a high level of education in a foreign country, plus having worked for the former government, puts them at risk for persecution. Afghan students studying abroad wouldn’t be receiving an Islamic education that the Taliban strongly emphasizes, and could also be taught what the Taliban sees as anti-Taliban propaganda, two factors that make them vulnerable targets of the Taliban.
Families of Afghans who live in Japan are also in need of evacuation. About 3,400 Afghans living in Japan wish to evacuate their families. Many of them are worried for their spouses, children, or parents, who face a higher risk of persecution if it is revealed that their family member resides in Japan, according to a survey conducted by AFA. This is concerning because reuniting with family is one of the best ways to support the mental well-being of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has previously gathered evidence showing that family reunification is an essential step for the smooth resettlement of refugees.
What Obstacles Do Afghan Refugees Face?
Although Afghan evacuees face serious threats in their home country, they also face numerous obstacles when trying to get into Japan.
Unlike in the case of Ukraine, there is limited public support for the evacuation of Afghan refugees to Japan. Though Japanese civil society is gradually taking action to help all refugees gain acceptance, it doesn’t compare in magnitude to the overwhelming support for Ukrainian refugees. According to the Japan Association for Refugees, the refugee issue is not considered a priority in domestic politics – a reflection of the public’s overall lack of interest in refugee issues. The relative lack of public support means an unlikely chance of seeing grassroots movements aimed at changing government refugee policy.
Not only are Afghan refugees not afforded support by Japan’s public, but there are a lot of legal technicalities inhibiting them and their families from fleeing to Japan. On March 18, 2022, Japan announced that Ukrainian refugees will be granted entry even if they don’t have someone who can act as a guarantor. But Afghans still require one in order to evacuate to Japan. A guarantor is somebody who insures the provision of expenses necessary for stay and travel and verifies that the evacuee is aware of and in compliance with Japan’s laws. Since this person must be a permanent resident of Japan, it’s a major obstacle for most evacuees who don’t have a relative or acquaintance in Japan.
What’s more, refugees need a long-term plan for resettlement to obtain a short-term visa. Applicants need a student visa or working visa in order to get hold of a short-term visa. This is a problem because applicants seek a short-term visa in the first place because they are in immediate need of refuge and don’t have a long-term plan at the moment. A significant legal barrier for refugees entering Japan, Ogawa noted that this counter-intuitive policy is yet to be addressed.
Even if refugees were to get hold of short-term visas for themselves, it is often difficult to evacuate their families. Even though family reunification is essential for the mental well-being of evacuees, the family visa for evacuees is limited to one’s spouse and children. This means that evacuating their parents, siblings, and extended family is difficult.
Specifically for students who studied in Japan, the resettlement process is not much easier, despite their connections to the country. In August 2021, universities such as Tokyo University, Nagoya University, and Kyushu University received calls for help from many former international students; yet, they were not financially equipped to evacuate them. Following an idea by Tokyo University, universities were able to invite some alumni as part-time lecturers under teaching visas. But for the most part, universities failed to help former students from Afghanistan.
What are Some Recommendations for Japan?
Seeing the painful obstacles that prevent most Afghan refugees from safely resettling, the two speakers, Ogawa and Orii, offered the following recommendations for Japan:
- Extend Stay
On March 15, 2022, Japan announced that Ukrainian evacuees in Japan will be able to extend their short-term visa to a “designated activities” visa, which will allow them to work in Japan for one year. Ogawa hopes that Afghan evacuees will be granted the same extension, as sending them back to Afghanistan will put them at huge risk of persecution.
- Provide Language and Employment Support
Most Afghan refugees are highly educated and most of them speak English well, so they will be able to work if they learn the Japanese language and receive employment counseling, according to Orii. However, NGOs, universities, and advocacy groups are struggling to provide language support for all evacuees. Japan should thus increase public funding for civil society to be able to provide 300-500 hours of language support, the amount needed to reach a level necessary for employment. In addition, employment support groups and the public sector should provide ample opportunities for employment.
- Assist Family Reunification
Being in Afghanistan can be a risk for family members, and evacuees are in anxiety about their safety. Japan should thus increase the scope of the family visa and apply it flexibly.
Why Should We Stay Informed on Underreported Issues?
When I first listened to the press conference, I was surprised at how little I had known about the critical situation Afghan refugees faced when coming to Japan. I remember being sucked in by the news last year in August, with the withdrawal of the U.S. forces and the quick seizure of Kabul by the Taliban that followed. I feared for the safety of Afghans opposed to the Taliban, including former government workers and women. But once Afghanistan vanished from the TV screen displaying the daily news, I admit so did my attention.
Among the obstacles Afghan refugees face, one that particularly stood out to me was the lack of public support in Japan. Yes, we can point fingers at the Japanese government for discrimination, saying they granted privileges to certain passport holders over others. But before we expect the government to act, I think we citizens are responsible for caring about refugee issues that are underreported, as in the case of Afghan refugees in Japan. After all, the government’s agenda is a reflection of the issues the public cares about. This we can do by checking out organizations that support refugees, tuning into online events, and going to rallies. By staying informed on refugee issues that slip through the cracks of mainstream media, I hope we can create refugee policies we can be proud of.
Edited by Esmé Graziani