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Participation Report: Refugee Assistant Training Seminar


“The refugee problem is not the refugees’ problem, but rather the problem for those taking in refugees. In other words, it is our problem.”
That phrase is one of the many that this seminar imprinted on my mind.

On September 21–22, 2019, I took part in the 40th Refugee Assistant Training Seminar held by the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) in Meiji University’s Liberty Tower. Given that the 90 or so students and non-students gave up a long weekend to participate, clearly the level of interest is high. Over the two days of the seminar, we heard from experts including JAR’s chair, director, and staff and a lawyer, as well as directly from a refugee. Topics in relation to the current status of Japan’s refugee assistance ranged widely from living and legal assistance to Japan’s immigration policy, cases of and trends in refugee intakes overseas, and what we can do.

Both these experts regularly involved with refugee issues and the refugees themselves painted a grim picture. Though it is not well known, refugees whose applications are under examination cannot work, so they cannot afford accommodation and food unless they have relatives or acquaintances—and as a result they become homeless. Examination can take up to 10 years to process, and gaining refugee status requires preparing a mountain of documents, all of which must be accompanied by Japanese translations. Translation work can be very expensive without volunteers to help. Nevertheless, there is at most a one-percent chance of being granted refugee status. The anguish of refugees who have been suffering from uncertainty about their future for many years is immeasurable.
The conditions in detention centers as described by the lawyer were particularly shocking. Detention centers hold foreigners without visas or residence status along with overstayers. Most of the detainees are held indefinitely; medical care provided is inadequate, and some people become emotionally traumatized and end up trying to take their own lives. It should not be forgotten that refugees are not people who came into the country without the necessary papers, but rather individuals who fled their home countries with only their lives under circumstances where they couldn’t possibly have those papers.
We also heard about countries with successful refugee intake policies. Some countries look at refugees from the perspective of social integration and view refugees not as a burden on society but rather as important human resources, providing language and vocational training as well as settlement assistance. We learned about countries with systems for training mentors to provide total support for refugees. Another discovery for me was that there are many good practices that Japan too could apply.

Last year Japan only took in 24 of the world’s 70.8 million refugees, more than half of whom are women and children. Clearly, it’s not easy to accept a lot of refugees, and many tough problems remain. However, there are also many things that we can do as citizens.

First, we can listen to their stories. Living in Japan, it’s easy to feel that refugees are remote from our lives, but JAR’s web magazine Nippon Fukuzatsu Kiko (Complicated Japan Journey) features stories from many refugees living in Japan. The stories aren’t always gloomy either; there are also positive accounts of people being accepted into Japan, going on to live happy lives here and being grateful to Japan. Even just reading and learning about the current situation is an opportunity to bring the refugee issue just a little closer to yourself.

Even though I’ve always had an interest in refugee issues, there were many facts that I learned for the first time in the seminar, and having the chance to hear moving stories first-hand from people operating on the leading edge was extremely valuable. In the final discussion on the second day, it was a great experience to be able to exchange views with people of various ages and backgrounds, from students in the same year as me who had come up from Kansai on the night bus to a doctor involved in a program providing free and low cost medical treatments.
In addition to developing an even greater concern over the refugee issue, I now also feel strongly that more people in Japan need to recognize the issue and treat it as something that affects them personally. I intend to share what I learned with those around me and convert it into whatever action I can, starting with volunteering for document translation.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express again my gratitude for having been given this precious opportunity.

(Kano Oyama, 3rd year student,
Global Studies for Inter-Cultural Cooperation,
Department of Languages and Culture, Faculty of Letters and Education)

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