Gloria Nkechi Onyekweli landed in Tokyo in 2006 with a fake passport in hand and a burning desire to be as far as possible from Nigeria, her home, where security forces shot her fiancé and had begun to hunt for her.
On Friday, she plans to board a plane for Canada, which has accepted her for resettlement after years of unsuccessful attempts to become a refugee in Japan – a country whose smiling welcome of Olympians stands in contrast to its treatment of people like Ms. Onyekweli.
In nearly 15 years in Japan, she was kept behind bars for 30 months and occasionally treated harshly. She describes being bruised by guards in immigration detention and feeling “mental torture” from the pressure of uncertainty. The law barred her from working, even after she learned Japanese and secured credentials to care for the elderly.
“They always present to the world that they are hospitable and nice,” she said. But when it comes to refugees, “they just want us to vanish from the Earth and get out of Japan.”
In her final hours in the country Thursday, Ms. Onyekweli cast her mind to an imminent future in British Columbia, where she looks forward to being in a place where “my life is not limited again. I will have total freedom again. I can become human again.”
The Globe and Mail sent a request for comment to Japan’s Immigration Services Agency. An official declined to speak through an interpreter or arrange someone to answer questions in English.
As a young Igbo woman in Nigeria, Ms. Onyekweli and her fiancé were part of Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, or MASSOB, which has advocated self-determination in southeastern Nigeria. Following a failed three-year war for independence that killed more than a million people a half-century ago, Nigeria has banned separatist groups like MASSOB – which calls itself a non-violent organization – and charged pro-Biafra advocates with terrorism and treason.
In 2006, Ms. Onyekweli’s fiancé was fatally shot on the street. As a leader in the women’s wing of MASSOB, she heard authorities were looking for her, too. She went into hiding and, through a broker, secured a false Lesotho passport, which she used to fly to Japan.
She liked the idea of landing in a democracy on the other side of the planet. “I was thinking of running very far, so that I could hide and forget about my nightmare,” she said.
Her welcome in Tokyo was not a friendly one.
Over days of questioning, immigration officers asked why she had come to Japan. Why not England, Nigeria’s former colonizer? Why not Mongolia? Then came the questions about the criminal past that, she repeated again and again, she did not have.
Authorities detained her at Narita International Airport for two months before moving her to an immigration detention centre for 10 months. She was then allowed a provisional release. Japan allows for refugee applicants to be granted work permits within eight months of arrival. But Ms. Onyekweli was honest with immigration officers about her false passport, which prompted them to classify her as “irregular.”
Asylum seekers can also receive government support for rent and living expenses. Ms. Onyekweli received that for less than a year. She has never received permission to work.
Refugee and human rights groups have denounced Japan for its treatment of refugee applicants. The country is among the wealthiest, but has largely kept its doors closed to those fleeing their homes. Last year, Japan counted 3,936 asylum seekers. It recognized just 51 as refugees.
Immigrants make up just 1.6 per cent of the population in Japan, a figure that has remained little changed despite one of the world’s fastest-shrinking populations.
Over her years in Japan, Ms. Onyekweli watched as others also struggled for recognition by authorities. One friend has been denied a visa despite marrying a Japanese woman and fathering three children with her. Other refugees have died, including 17 while in immigration detention since 2007.
With little legal status, however, asylum seekers who are in Japan fear being placed behind bars at any time. Ms. Onyekweli has been in detention three times, for 30 months in total. Once, in late 2010, guards seized her from her cell when she began banging a table and refused to sleep in anger at her treatment. A long stay in detention had made her agitated and panicky. The officers picked her up, tossed her out of the cell and then took her to another room where they sat on her hands and held a blanket over her face.
“I was begging for air,” she said. She remembered thinking, “I don’t want to die in Japan.” She was left bruised.
Violence is not commonplace in immigration detention centres, said Mieko Ishikawa, general-director of International Social Service Japan, a social welfare non-governmental organization. But guards may use force to quell a person who has gone “wild,” she said. “There are various reasons why people in prison go wild, such as being held for a long time or the medical needs of the person are not met in a way the person is satisfied with.”
Even after her release from detention, Ms. Onyekweli described the gnawing fear of being sent back as “mental torture.” Her inability to work legally brought more hardship. Living in a small apartment with thin walls, it was a struggle to assemble enough money to pay for heat in winter. She did odd jobs, but also relied on the charity of others to buy medicine or, when she looked obviously hungry, food.
Still, she sought to adapt. She learned Japanese well enough to read a newspaper and complete a course in elder care. She passed the exam, only to be barred from completing a practicum.
“Long-term care homes in Japan as in Canada are critically short-staffed,” said John R. Harris, a Canadian who has lived in Japan for decades. “So here’s a woman who is ready to go and do a job that no Japanese wants to do, and yet they still wouldn’t allow her.” He calls it “xenophobia.”
He was with Ms. Onyekweli when she received a phone call 10 days before the Olympic opening ceremony from immigration authorities, who warned her against leaving home for the duration of the Games, saying she risked police harassment if she was out and about.
“The Japanese just assume that refugees are criminals or something,” he said.
Mr. Harris was among a group of Canadians who took Ms. Onyekweli under their wing, first steering her to a community at St. Alban’s Anglican church in Tokyo, then guiding her through the process of applying for refugee status in Canada.
“It was pretty tough to watch her be consistently swept under the rug,” said Christian Howes, a Canadian active in the church choir who felt compelled to help Ms. Onyekweli. “She was here in an environment where she was told not to work – but wasn’t told how you eat if you don’t work. And she had no health care.”
He made a connection with an Anglican church group in Kimberley, B.C., which agreed to sponsor Ms. Onyekweli.
“It makes you tremendously proud to think that people in a small town that isn’t a financial centre, that doesn’t have huge unlimited wealth to give away, would say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got room,’ ” Mr. Howes said.
On Thursday, Ms. Onyekweli waited with her bags and boxes packed with her few belongings, including the elder care textbook she studied. Her hope is to use what she learned in Japan to bring comfort to people in Kimberley.
“Because I have suffered a lot in Japan,” she said. “I want to forget about my pain by helping other people.”
With a report by Naoko Mikami
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