May 2022

The warm welcome given to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion has highlighted the Japanese government’s unfair treatment of Afghan evacuees

Photo by Alain Pham on Unsplash - Artwork by Julio Shiiki

S.S., a 33-year-old Japan-educated Afghan IT engineer from Kabul, remembers his journey to Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 26, 2021. He was told to get on a last-minute flight chartered by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) that had been sent to evacuate Japanese workers and Afghans with links to Japan.  

With the sun fading, he and several others got into a car and fled during the 17-day sprint to exit Afghanistan following the U.S.’s decision to hastily withdraw from the country. 

They were only five minutes away from the gates outside the airport when a suicide bomber struck. An estimated 183 people died, including 13 U.S. servicemen who had been guarding the gate.   

With his flight canceled, S.S. had to turn back and wait anxiously for one-and-a-half months before he could finally be evacuated to Japan in October 2021, leaving his wife and their five-and-a-half-year-old son behind.

“Few seats were available. It was a very difficult decision,” says the evacuee. He gained a Master’s degree in computer science from Kobe University in 2014 and refuses to reveal his name, fearing that the Taliban will harm his family in Afghanistan. 

S.S. is one of more than 600 so-called “Japanese alumni” – those with links to Japan through their studies or work on Japanese humanitarian projects. Japan’s foreign and justice ministries prefer to label them hinanmin (evacuees) rather than “refugees” with internationally recognized rights.  

Using short-term and emergency visas initially valid for 90 days, some of the evacuees claim they have been unfairly treatmed, and denied assistance and guidance from the Japanese government, according to a new study conducted by Actions for Afghanistan (AFA), an alliance of refugee rights campaigners and academics. 

This is in stark contrast to the warm welcome extended to the Ukrainian evacuees who have arrived in Japan after fleeing their country in similar circumstances.

Japan strongly denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and welcomed people displaced by the conflict. Those refugees have been offered financial and material help, and even promised counseling and language lessons to help them settle in Japan.

Speaking at the FCCJ recently, representatives of AFA argued that while Japan’s benign treatment of Ukrainians was much appreciated – and an example of what a refugee policy ought to look like – it is the exception.

They cite their March 2022 survey of 65 Afghan evacuees - including professionals, students, academics and others with international ties to the West - and their family members.

According to the survey, 95% of those questioned said they feared persecution by the Taliban if they returned home due to their ethnic origin, religion, gender, or simply because they had worked in the media or civil society, or for foreign organizations. 

One of them, Mohammad*, a 31-year-old assistant professor of agriculture who studied at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology as a Japanese Monbusho scholar, says he was accused by the Taliban of being a “Japanese spy” and had to flee the country last October.

The evacuees’ ordeal is far from over when they arrive in Japan, according to the survey. 

Around 40% said they were unhappy – with an inability to work or find a sponsor due to their visa situation cited as the most common cause of frustration – while 70% voiced concern about their future, either due to work challenges or the lack of clarity from the Japanese government over the resettlement of Afghans. 

In addition, many lack adequate Japanese-language skills and family support, which affects their mental and physical health.

AFA alliance member Dr. Reiko Ogawa, a sociology professor at Chiba University and a refugee assessor at the justice ministry, said government officials lacked empathy for Afghan evacuees and had failed to appreciate their fear of persecution back home.

“That kind of understanding is very limited within the administration at the immigration agency,” Ogawa said. “There seems to be a naive kind of understanding … about how state institutions like the police or the justice system work [outside Japan]. In many of the countries where the refugees come from, the state mechanism is close to collapse.”     

Norimasa Orii, former program manager at the Japan Association for Refugees displayed a chart showing the clear difference between the relative levels of sympathy and support for Afghans and Ukrainians.

For example, Afghans need to secure financial assistance from a guarantor to receive a work permit a minimum of three months after they arrive in Japan, while Ukrainians do not, according to Orii, who is also chair of the board of Pathways Japan, an AFA-member organization established in July 2021 to help refugee students.

Ukrainian evacuees are allowed to bring not only their spouse and children, but also members of their extended family, while Afghans are theoretically permitted to be joined only by their spouse and children.

Ogawa said she had heard of an Afghan evacuee, a former academic on a Japanese government scholarship, whose wife and 3-year-old child, who was born in Japan, had fled to Iran after being denied permission to join him in Japan. The family has since been reunited following a campaign by a refugee rights group.

While the government finalizes the details of its package of assistance to Ukrainian refugees, including language tuition and employment, no such help is being considered for their Afghan counterparts.

Ukrainians receive a daily allowance of ¥1,000 if they are staying at government, municipal or corporate shelters, and ¥2,400 if they are in public housing. Those leaving shelters to move into ordinary accommodation also receive a lump sum of ¥160,000. None of these forms of assistance is available to Afghans.     

With little official support, Afghan refugees depend on the generosity of NGOs, private individuals, organizations and universities.

The exceptional treatment being offered to Ukrainian refugees surprised experts, given Japan’s reputation for being comparatively indifferent to the plight of people seeking refuge here.

In 2020, Japan granted refugee status to just 47 of 3,936 applicants, according to the justice ministry. Another 44 were granted residential status out of humanitarian considerations. That is a total of just 91 successful applicants out of thousands.  

In making a decision on refugee status, some have pointed out that the Japanese government assesses an applicant’s potential contribution to the economy and their home country’s position in the global hierarchy. In that sense, Japan has a compelling geopolitical reason for embracing Ukrainians: it will strengthen its standing in the international community. 

Seven months have passed since the airport explosion forced S.S. to abandon his initial escape. He has since found job as an IT engineer, but only after his Japanese employer – whom he did not know – offered to sponsor him out of compassion. Mohammad, who has a Ph.D in agriculture, was offered a teaching position at his alma mater in Japan.

But the suicide bombings continue in Afghanistan. “War is a terrible thing,” S.S said, “wherever in the world it happens.”

*Mohammad's name has been changed at his request.

Ilgın Yorulmaz is a reporter for BBC World Turkish. She is the Second Vice President of FCCJ and also serves on its Diversity Committee.