Photo/Illutration A Ugandan woman speaks at a news conference in Osaka on March 15 after the district court ordered the government to recognize her as a refugee. (Takuya Asakura)

OSAKA--In a landmark ruling, a district court ordered the government to recognize a Ugandan woman as a refugee after she fled to Japan out of fear of being persecuted because she is gay.

The Osaka District Court's March 15 ruling tossed out the government’s decision to deport her. 

“Discriminatory attitudes toward gay people are strong in Uganda, and she could be arbitrarily detained by the authorities,” Presiding Judge Hajime Morikagi said.

The woman, who is in her 30s and suffered from physical abuse in her home country, wishes to remain anonymous because she is afraid of being discriminated against by other Ugandans in Japan.

When her lawyer announced the court’s decision, the woman wiped away tears in the courtroom.

She told reporters at a news conference that she has been “trembling” in fear since she came to Japan, but this finally puts her mind at ease.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I constantly felt anxious about being deported.”

An expert hailed the ruling as a win for LGBT asylum seekers.

“The ruling carefully examined past violent acts against an applicant and lowered the hurdle for refugee recognition to a certain degree,” said Eriko Suzuki, a professor at Kokushikan University who specializes in refugee policies. “I hope this ruling will lead to practical changes.”

According to the woman’s court claim, she tried to enter Japan at Kansai International Airport in February 2020 using a passport and short-term visa obtained from a broker. But she was detained at the Osaka Regional Immigration Services Bureau.

She sought recognition as a refugee, claiming she could be persecuted if she returns to her home country.

But the Japanese government rejected her application and issued a deportation order in April the same year. She then filed the lawsuit.

Uganda’s Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage and its criminal law imposes life imprisonment on individuals who engage in sexual acts “contrary to the law of nature.”

The court considered the woman’s submission of photographs showing scars on her body.

It recognized that she had been arrested and detained by the police for being gay and subjected to violence, including being beaten with a stick. The ruling said she did not receive appropriate medical treatment for a long time.

The court rejected the government’s argument that “there is no fear for being tortured on the grounds of being a gay person.”

The ruling also stated that “discriminatory attitudes toward gay people still exist within state institutions” in Uganda.

It concluded that she qualifies as a refugee since there are “objective reasons for the woman to fear that she will experience similar violence” if she returns home.

Following the ruling, the Immigration Services Agency of Japan said it will “carefully examine the contents of the ruling and respond appropriately.”

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), nearly 70 countries criminalize same-sex acts.

But starting in the 1990s, Western countries have increasingly moved to protect LGBT people as refugees when they flee their home countries out of fear of persecution.

According to statistics from the British government, refugee applications for being gay accounted for around 5 percent of all refugee applications from 2015 to 2020 in the country.

The refugee-recognition rate for these asylum seekers ranges from 22 to 48 percent. Even in cases where the initial application was rejected, nearly half win recognition after an appeal.

In Japan, the Justice Ministry granted refugee status in 2019 to a foreign national who claimed to have been arrested in the applicant's home country over same-sex acts. It is believed to be the first such recognition in Japan.

(This article was written by Yusuke Morishita and Takuya Asakura.)