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As I See It: Japan must fix refugee status issues before accepting more foreign workers

Kurdish women dance in traditional dress during the ethnic "Newroz" New Year's celebration, in Akigase Park, in the city of Saitama's Sakura Ward, on March 24, 2018. (Mainichi/Tetsuo Tokizawa)

KAWAGUCHI, Saitama -- Said to be the biggest ethnic group without a country, several million Kurds have become refugees due to armed conflict and prosecution. Around 2,000 Kurds have come from Turkey and are now residing in Japan, and 1,500 of them have chosen this city in the southern part of the prefecture, just north of Tokyo, as their home.

From December 2017 to August 2018, I wrote a series of articles for the Saitama local page called "Far from home: The Kurds of Kawaguchi." I learned of those who had come to Japan to apply for refugee status, but were separated from their families and locked up in Immigration Bureau holding facilities, fearing their extradition that can happen at any moment. As Japan increases the number of foreign workers to battle a shrinking labor force, the time to discuss the problems with Japan's refugee system is upon us.

The Kurdish people have long lived in a region dubbed Kurdistan, which covers corners of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, among other Middle Eastern countries, and their population is estimated to be between 25 and 30 million. In Turkey, under a policy of assimilation, using the Kurdish language is prohibited. Kurds are thought of as "Turkish people who forgot how to speak Turkish while they were living in the mountains," and face prosecution as the existence of their own independent culture is denied.

I first met a Kurdish person some 10 years ago. In a park in the city of Warabi, just next to Kawaguchi, I happened upon the Kurdish New Year's celebration of "Newroz." The Kurds began coming to Japan in the 1990s, and that was when they began to settle in Saitama. Soon after, by bringing their families and others, Kurdish children who were born and raised in Japan began to grow in number, and a community emerged.

When I visited Kawaguchi Municipal Shiba Chuo Elementary School, which boasts a student base of some 460 children, this June there were 37 Kurdish children attending. As they picked up more Japanese, the children started to speak less and less of their first language.

"Even if I speak to my children in Kurdish, they answer me in Japanese," one father of three revealed. "Children raised in Japan cannot return to Turkey." As I continued my investigation, I began to feel like thinking about the future of these children and how to find solutions to their problems were not only issues for the Kurdish community, but for us Japanese as well.

Many Kurds who did not have a visa to stay in Japan but had been given "provisional release" from an immigration holding facility under certain conditions due to humanitarian reasons did not want to give their real names during interviews in fear of being taken into custody again. However, this time, when I went to interview them, young Kurds talked about the conditions in the immigration facilities using their real names.

Belat Balibay, 23, came to Japan at the age of 12, brought by his parents who had fled as refugees. "We haven't done anything wrong," he said, full of anger. "Why do they take away our freedom?" In July, he was released from a facility in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo and to the east of Saitama, after two years and four months away from his family. He said he was believed to have violated the conditions of his provisional release by going to Tokyo's Roppongi district to have fun without receiving temporary residence permission.

The fact that a young person could have over two years of freedom stolen from him for simply going out to the center of the capital horrified me.

Six months after getting married, 22-year-old Mehriban Dursun was held at the facility at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau in Minato Ward for roughly four months from November last year. She came to Japan at the age of 6, and during one of her visits to immigration once every few months to carry out procedures to extend her provisional release period, an immigration official warned, "If you don't get a visa (to stay in Japan), you won't be hired by a company."

Believing that there was no more meaning to trying hard in school, Dursun dropped out. "I worked just as hard as my Japanese classmates," she said during an interview at immigration. "I just want you to let me stay in Japan." All I could do was listen helplessly.

In 2016, a 20-year-old appears to have become the first Kurdish student to advance to university education in Japan. Coming to the country 10 years earlier, she joined the Japanese school system from the fifth grade of elementary school. With arduous study, she was able to move on to a public high school, and with exceptional grades, was accepted into the English department of a university via recommendation admission. In fluent Japanese, she said, "Even though I came to Japan as a refugee, (because I am on provisional release) I don't have a national health insurance card and I cannot work, either. If I am not certified as a refugee, then even if I graduate from university, it will be difficult to get a job."

The reality is that the refugee issue cannot be simply wrapped up from a humanitarian standpoint alone. Since the "Arab Spring" democratic movement that swept the Middle East, many have fled to Europe, and a great deal of countries accepted these refugees. However, this became a social and political problem as public safety worsened and the host countries were shouldered with the financial burden of supporting the new residents, among other issues.

Even under such difficult situations, European nations have accepted several dozen thousand refugees, while Japan only recognized 20 people as refugees in 2017. Just looking at the Kurdish community alone, not one individual has been granted refugee status over the last more than 20 years.

"The governments of Japan and Turkey are working together on anti-terrorism policies," explained Tokyo Bar Association lawyer Takeshi Ohashi, 56, who is well-versed in issues concerning Kurdish refugees. "If the Ministry of Justice, which has jurisdiction over anti-terrorism measures, certifies Kurds as refugees, then it is also recognizing that the people are being politically ostracized in Turkey." Ohashi firmly believes that the process of recognizing refugees should be separated from the Justice Ministry and handled by a third-party organization. I, too, think that this is an important point to be considered in the debate over refugee status in Japan.

The Japanese government is aiming to introduce new residential statuses next April toward expanding the acceptance of foreign workers in industries with deepening labor shortages, such as construction, nursing care and agriculture.

There are currently more than 2.5 million foreign nationals residing in Japan, and it has been pointed out that Japan has already become a country of immigrants. But while the government works to accept more foreign laborers, is it really all right to turn our backs on the problems of Kurds being locked up by immigration or worrying about the future of their children in Japan?

Kurdish children born and raised in Japan will soon move on to high school or college, or reach an age where they begin to seek employment. Can we not consider providing these children with a residency status that allows them to polish their skills in a special field and work in Japan?

As a member of international society, the time has come for Japan to discuss refugee issues.

(Japanese original by Tetsuo Tokizawa, Kawaguchi Local Bureau)

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