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  5. Miraculous Victory: Reflections on Seeking Refugee Status based on LGBTQ Persecution

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FOCUS September 2023 Volume 113

Miraculous Victory: Reflections on Seeking Refugee Status based on LGBTQ Persecution

Keiko Tanaka

A lesbian Ugandan woman was detained by the Japanese immigration authorities at the Kansai International Airport upon her arrival in Japan at the end of February 2020. She was later detained at the Osaka Regional Immigration Services Bureau. On 4 March 2020, she applied for a refugee status, but her application was denied about a month later (on 2 April 2020). After six days, on 8 April 2020, a Deportation Order was issued to her. She appealed to the Minister of Justice on the same day for an administrative review of the order denying her application for refugee status. On 20 April 2020, based on her request, she was granted provisional release.

On 5 August 2020, she received a notice from the immigration office that it was not holding oral hearings on her petition for review. A notice of termination of the proceedings on her refugee status application was issued on the same day. On 8 October 2020, she filed a petition in court for the revocation of the 8 April 2020 deportation order. On 3 December 2020, her request for administrative review was denied and the decision not to grant her a refugee status was confirmed.

She petitioned the Osaka District Court on 4 June 2021 to revoke the decision of the immigration office denying her petition for grant of refugee status. Two years later, on 15 March 2023, the Osaka District Court ruled in her favor. The government did not appeal the court ruling, making it final on 30 March 2023. She received a certificate of recognition of refugee status from the Minister of Justice on 19 April 2023.

Series of "Miracles"

Her case is characterized by a series of miracles that do not usually exist in refugee status applications in Japan.

First Miracle: First Meeting within Two Weeks

A representative of RAFIQ, a Japanese non-governmental organization working on refugee issues, was able to meet her for the first time two weeks after she was detained.

Had this chance been missed, it would have taken another month for this meeting to happen since RAFIQ detainee visit was a monthly activity. RAFIQ knew her case before the meeting based on information from another detainee from Uganda as well as information from the Japan Association for Refugee Assistance (JAR).

During the first meeting, she said that she was placed in isolation. There was no explanation given to her about this treatment but she assumed that it was due to her sexuality. Because of this, she was not able to meet or contact other inmates. Having known a similar treatment of a detainee in the previous year, RAFIQ requested that she be moved to the regular quarters of detainees. At the same time, RAFIQ protested this isolation treatment. Without any reason being given, she was moved to the regular quarters the following week.

Second Miracle: Provisional Release Granted in About Two Months

After several meetings with her, RAFIQ concluded that she was "likely a refugee," and thus eligible for its assistance program. RAFIQ supported her in obtaining provisional release with the help of the Forum for Refugee Japan (FRJ[1]), which has a program with the Ministry of Justice to "secure housing for those seeking asylum at airports."[2] Since it was confirmed that she had stated when she arrived at the Kansai International Airport that she was an asylum seeker, she was eligible for the program. I became the guarantor for her provisional release, a deposit was paid, and she stayed at the RAFIQ shelter.

With provisional release and her availability to provide information, getting documents and information from Uganda to support her application for refugee status ran much more smoothly.

Third Miracle: Two Great Lawyers

The need for a lawyer to assist her was urgent. But the lawyer working with RAFIQ on refugee status cases was too busy with other cases. Fortunately, RAFIQ was able to avail of a consultation service on getting lawyers during the "Immigration and Refugee Legal Counseling Session in Commemoration of June 20, World Refugee Day" (organized by the Kanto Federation of Bar Associations). RAFIQ eventually got two lawyers to handle the case.

While the two lawyers had never worked with RAFIQ before, they were very committed to the case. With them, the support for the application of her refugee status continued.

Fourth Miracle: RAFIQ's Legal Support Service

As a citizens' group, RAFIQ began to build a legal assistance system several years ago. Two or three members of RAFIQ would be in charge of one refugee applicant and support his/her refugee application procedures while strengthening trust with one another at the same time. Those members were able to help the two lawyers with interpretation, translation, collecting information from the country of origin, and during the hearing of her case.

Fifth Miracle: Integrity of the Judge

It is a pity that the court's ruling on the refugee cases would depend on the judge's character. Fortunately, the judge assigned to her case seemed to have integrity. Although the court hearings were held during COVID-19 pandemic, many people attended as observers at each hearing. With notable public concern on the case, the judge took more time to explain what was going on during the trial and made it easier for people to follow the hearings. The judge also seemed to be taking proper consideration of the documents submitted by RAFIQ.

Sixth Miracle: She Never Gave Up

In the beginning, she was very emotional and was crying all the time. She only answered questions when she was asked. We did not know how to console her when she became very depressed on learning the government's initial decision not to recognize her as a refugee and the dismissal of the administrative review. As the court proceedings continued, however, she came to understand her situation and the Japanese court system.

During this period, RAFIQ provided her with various forms of assistance to support her. As a result, she was able to answer the questions in her own words when she was questioned in court in a hearing that took about four and half hours (from 10:30 am to 3:00 pm). Before the ruling, however, she said she could not sleep for a week out of anxiety. At a press conference after the court decision, she said she was shaking all the time. One can imagine how hard it had been for her for three years.

Tanaka_rafiq.jpgThe plaintiff, lawyers, and RAFIQ members in front of Osaka Regional Immigration Services Bureau on the day the court decision was finalized.

Japan's Refugee Problems

The denial of her petition seeking refugee status by the immigration office revealed a number of issues regarding Japan's refugee recognition system:

  • Though she had stated that she was an asylum seeker upon arrival at the airport, which should have allowed her to apply for refugee status, she was instead detained due to the government's "presumption of detention" policy, which means "suspicious aliens" can be detained according to the immigration officials' arbitrary decision;
  • She was unable to apply for refugee status at the airport despite her declaration;
  • The interview regarding her refugee declaration was done in English, not in her native tongue, Luganda;
  • She was not allowed to have someone who can speak on her behalf to assist her during the interview. The interview also lacked transparency;
  • The denial of refugee status, applied for on 4 March 2020 and decided within a month, happened while she was in detention which made it impossible for her to submit supporting documents;
  • In the administrative review of her application, oral hearings were not held, and a notice of termination of proceedings was simply issued;
  • The lawyers requested a reopening of the administrative review proceedings with new documents being submitted, but the review was not granted;
  • She had no choice but file a second refugee status application because of the persecution she might face in Uganda;
  • Although she won the case in court, it took time for her to be recognized as a refugee, as she had to wait for the Minister of Justice to give the approval for the issuance of the Certificate of Refugee Status. Until recognized as a refugee, one has no residence status and is prohibited from working. As in the previous cases, it can take more than two months for such refugee certificate to be issued. Thus RAFIQ started an online signature campaign[3] demanding that the Minister of Justice immediately grant her the refugee status;
  • In court, she argued both "persecution from the state" and "persecution from the local people." Though she won the case, the judge did not recognize the latter type of persecution. LGBTQ persons are afraid of persecution from local people including their own family members;
  • She had to go through all the procedures without a financial source since she was prohibited from working. RAFIQ provided her with relief supplies while the Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ) helped her with living expenses.[4] But RHQ's financial assistance is provided only to applicants for refugee status who fulfill one of the conditions below:
  1. Persons who are on the first refugee recognition application to the Ministry of Justice;
  2. Persons who objects to the rejection of the first application to the Ministry of Justice;
  3. Persons who file a case in a court of first instance to contest the denial of the first refugee recognition application.

Because of these conditions, the assistance to her had two periods. One is the period from the time she applied for recognition as refugee (4 March 2020) till denial of the application (3 December 2020). The second period was from filing of a petition in court (4 June 2021) till court decision (15 March 2023) that upheld her petition.

The recognition of her status as a refugee was a miracle because the networks of refugee support groups were able to work well together in support of her case.

The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act was revised on 9 June 2023 after she received the certificate of recognition as refugee on 19 April 2023. What could have happened to her if she had not won the case before this revision of the law? She certainly would have been subjected to deportation under the revised law since she applied for refugee status for the second time on 5 August 2021.

There would be only two choices if she refused to return home in this case. She either get imprisoned for "evading deportation" or be deported to Uganda by force, where the world's harshest anti-LGBT bill was passed by parliament in March 2023, and signed into law by the Ugandan President on 29 May 2023.

We will continue to provide reliable support to each and every refugee, bearing in mind that we carry such responsibility as we engage them in their lives.

Keiko Tanaka is the Representative Director of RAFIQ JAPAN.

For further information please contact: RAFIQ JAPAN, 9-13, Higashimikuni 4-chome, Yodogawa-ku, Osaka City, 532-0002, Japan; ph/fax06-6335-4440, e-mail:;


[1] RAFIQ is a member of FRJ, see [English].

[2] See news on this, [Japanese].

[3] See signature campaign, [in Japanese].

[4] See Refugee Assistance Headquarters, [in English].