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Shelter in east Japan provides temporary comfort to refugee applicants

A woman from Myanmar applying for refugee status is seen placing her hand on the shoulder of an elderly person at an adult day care facility near Arrupe Refugee Center, in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Nov. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

KAMAKURA, Kanagawa -- A roughly 15-minute bus ride from JR Kamakura Station and a walk up a steep hillside brings you to Arrupe Refugee Center, a shelter for refugee status applicants.

    The facility in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, opened in April 2020 after the Society of Jesus gave the operators free use of a 27,739-square-meter site and a building that can accommodate up to 30 people. The Society was inspired to provide the space by facility secretary-general Kenji Arikawa's assertion that "people who are applying for refugee status need a place to live in peace." Ten people from countries including Myanmar and Sri Lanka are living together here now.

    A woman in her 40s from Myanmar, who has been in Japan for more than 10 years, is currently applying for refugee status for the third time. After so long in the country, Mimi (a pseudonym) is fluent in Japanese. Though her smiles and jokes make a definite impression now, worsening health problems once put her in the hospital, during a stint at an Immigration Bureau (now the Immigration Services Agency of Japan) detention center after a previous refugee application was rejected.

    A woman from Myanmar applying for refugee status shows a notebook she used to study Japanese, in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Oct. 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    Mimi says she likes interacting with people. Aiming to complete the training for first-time caregivers, she plays card games and talks with elderly people as a volunteer at a nearby adult day care center.

    "I think it's important to become friends first. I'm not in a position to say that I want to be accepted, but I want to do my best to live in Japanese society from now on," she said.

    As the sun began to set, a man arrived at the center, weighed down with luggage. He requested to enter the facility, saying, "I don't have a place to live, and I came here after being introduced." After carefully asking the man about his circumstances, Arikawa told him he could stay there from that day forth. Crying, the man thanked Arikawa with a quavering voice.

    A man from Sri Lanka who didn't have a place to live and came to Arrupe Refugee Center for help is seen with bags packed with most of his belongings, in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Oct. 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    Risa (also a pseudonym) came to Japan from Sri Lanka in the late 1980s to study at a university. However, as he could not return to his home country due to a civil war, he repeatedly applied for refugee status. He said he is now on "temporary release" from immigration detention for reasons including his health. The man had had to sleep outside, as he wasn't able to work or travel freely.

    "Now, though I can't see what's ahead for me and that's very worrying, I'm just grateful I have a place to live," he said. A few days later when I visited Risa, he looked like he felt more secure and cheerful as he said, "I can't walk well right now, so I want to get that fully fixed first."

    Japan joined the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981 and introduced a refugee recognition system the following year. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees and those applying for refugee status, including those who have been internally displaced due to conflicts and other reasons, reached a record high of about 82.4 million people at the end of 2020.

    The number of applicants in Japan in 2020 decreased by more than 60% from the previous year to 3,936 people due to coronavirus pandemic immigration restriction, but the refugee recognition rate was just 1.2% -- 47 people -- according to the Ministry of Justice.

    Arikawa said, "I want the existence of refugees to be an opportunity to think about what human rights are, and what diversity is, to create a society in which they are accepted. I hope that various people will help spread understanding."

    (Japanese original by Yuki Miyatake, Photo Group)

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