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Refugee-shy Japan accepts Ukrainian evacuees, but lacks support system for long-term stays

Iryna Sidenko, center, and her husband Volodymyr are seen undergoing procedures to change their residency status in the city of Fukuoka's Hakata Ward on April 19, 2022. Pictured at right is their daughter Karyna Kurokawa, who is interpreting for them. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

FUKUOKA -- Ukrainian people who fled their country in the wake of Russia's invasion are being accepted by local governments and nongovernmental bodies in Japan, but Japan, known for its low refugee recognition rate, is still fumbling with its attempts to support the evacuees.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, 649 evacuees had fled from Ukraine to Japan as of April 16. Japan has had no experience in recent years of accepting such a large number of fleeing foreigners at once. And as there are no laws with specific provisions on evacuees, the country is still struggling to figure out how to help, while the rights of evacuees remain vague.

    A couple who fled Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, where violent military offensives continue amid the Russian invasion, were reunited with their daughter who lives in the city of Fukuoka's Minami Ward on April 19. Volodymyr Sidenko, 65, and his wife Iryna, 66, said they spent sleepless nights back home as the sound of shelling reverberated and shook the house, while air raid alerts sounded throughout the area. The pair, who barely made it out alive, looked relieved as they were surrounded by their grandchildren and their 39-year-old daughter Karyna Kurokawa.

    The Sidenkos were originally against the idea of evacuating from their hometown when their daughter urged them to leave. They apparently feared going outside worrying that they would be targeted by the Russian military during their escape, and insisted that they wanted to be at home if they were going to die anyway. However, the two have asthma and cannot go without an inhaler. Kurokawa persuaded her parents to come to Japan by telling them that their lives were in danger in Ukraine due to the lack of medical supplies, and that they should escape while they could.

    However, the family has worries moving forward. Evacuees from Ukraine enter Japan on a short-term stay visa, which grants residency for 90 days. If they wish, they are allowed to switch their visa status to "designated activities," which enables employment. This measure makes it possible to register as a resident and join the national health insurance program.

    Yukari Yamashita, 59, representative director of Fukuoka-based nonprofit Global Life Support Center, who provides consultations for the two, commented, "It's our top priority to create an environment where the two, who have chronic ailments, can be examined at medical institutions."

    However, it is unclear whether the period of "designated activities" for evacuees can be renewed, and they are not guaranteed a stable residency status. Compared to "refugees," who are granted long-term residency and a wide range of rights, "evacuees" (the term used by the Japanese government for those fleeing Ukraine) are being viewed as people who will eventually have to leave, said Yamashita. She raised the question of how the government will respond to cases where the evacuees are unable to return to Ukraine due to individual circumstances.

    Livelihood support is another issue. The Japanese government distributes allowances to evacuees who have no relatives or friends in Japan, with handouts totaling 2,400 yen (about $19) per day for individuals aged 12 or older and then 1,600 yen, or roughly $12, for every other adult family member, and 1,200 yen (about $9) to those aged under 12. But as the Sidenkos have a daughter living in Japan, they are ineligible for the payments. It is unrealistic for the couple to get a job due to their old age and lack of Japanese knowledge, which means they will be fully dependent on Kurokawa. She appeared concerned over this issue, as her family has no financial leeway.

    Yamashita commented, "Financial support should be given regardless of whether the evacuees have relatives or other acquaintances in Japan. Depending on the situation, they might not even be able to pay for medical fees in the event of an emergency. This has brought to the fore the reality of an insufficient support system for not only Ukrainians, but for foreigners in Japan as a whole."

    Megumi Kuwana, associate professor at Kindai University, who specializes in humanitarian aid, commented, "It is imperative that a framework facilitating the cooperation of the public and private sectors be created on the national and local levels, so that they can respond to cases even if the evacuation is prolonged. Many evacuees are female, and a gender conscious standpoint is also necessary. The rights of evacuees are currently not clear, and it is crucial to move forward with legislation."

    (Japanese original by Shizuka Takebayashi and Yu Yoshizumi, Kyushu News Department)

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