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2 'Ukrainian evacuees' vanish from east Japan city in suspected abuse of support scheme

A suburban area of the Gunma Prefecture city of Shibukawa is seen in this May 30, 2022, photo. The area is where the two women had stayed as Ukrainian evacuees. (Mainichi/Tetsuya Shoji)

SHIBUKAWA, Gunma -- Two women who arrived in Japan as evacuees from Ukraine under invasion by Russia have disappeared from a host place in the Gunma Prefecture city of Shibukawa, multiple sources close to the case have revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun.

    The women -- supposedly a mother in her 50s and child in her 30s -- apparently vanished after they had trouble with their guarantor when he asked them to present their passports. The pair are believed to have returned to Ukraine.

    While the reason for their disappearance is unknown, the case raises the possibility that Japan's support system for Ukrainian evacuees may be getting abused.

    According to the sources, the two women arrived in Japan on May 14 via Poland with the assistance of an incorporated nonprofit organization in the Gunma Prefecture city of Isesaki, which has been aiding Ukrainian evacuees with travel and livelihood expenses. The guarantor voluntarily took on the role after being introduced to the pair by the nonprofit group. He covered some 300,000 yen (about $2,200) for their travel expenses and offered them a place to stay at a building in Shibukawa. The travel expenses were meant to be reimbursed later.

    The Japanese government has drastically simplified visa application procedures for Ukrainian evacuees and has permitted them to enter Japan on a 90-day short-stay visa. As this can later be switched to a "designated activities" status that enables them to work for up to a year if they wish, it had been expected that the parent-child pair would ask for such a status change after they apparently entered Japan on short-term visas.

    The guarantor asked the pair on May 19 to present their passports, which were required in procedures for visas and when making arrangements with the nonprofit organization. However, they declined to show their passports and abruptly vanished. Upon receiving a report, an official of the Shibukawa Municipal Government took the pair into protective custody in the city later the same day.

    The pair subsequently stayed near Tokyo and elsewhere before apparently returning to Ukraine in June, according to another individual familiar with the situation.

    "I saw photos that were uploaded by someone believed to be the pair on social media, and they appeared to be enjoying sightseeing near Tokyo. I wonder if they really were evacuees," the individual told the Mainichi. A representative of the nonprofit group that coordinated for them also revealed, "We didn't thoroughly verify their identities, nor were we sure whether the names they used were their real names."

    The municipal government, which has been raising donations to support Ukrainian evacuees, had planned to assist the pair, but a representative of the city's general policy department commented, "The city government was not directly involved in accepting the pair, and we cannot comment on the case for reasons including protecting their privacy."

    There have been reports across Japan over trouble involving the acceptance of Ukrainian evacuees in local communities.

    Motohiro Ono, chairman of the Japan-Ukraine cultural exchange association based in the city of Yao, Osaka Prefecture, which has interacted with Ukraine for over 15 years, said, "There are cases in which people posing as evacuees enter Japan when their real purpose is sightseeing. It's not rare that evacuees had prepared their return tickets for use three months in advance even though they had supposedly evacuated to Japan due to Russia's invasion. The parties that are hosting them need to confirm whether they are really evacuees."

    (Japanese original by Tetsuya Shoji, Maebashi Bureau)

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