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Is Japan giving asylum seekers the cold shoulder? Policies suggest answer is 'yes'

People protest in front of the Ministry of Justice in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district on March 18, 2019, following revelations that ambulances called for Mehmet Colak, detained at Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in the capital's Minato Ward, by his family, were turned away by immigration authorities. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

TOKYO -- At least 10,000 people apply for refugee status every year in Japan, and yet less than 1% of those people are recognized by the government as refugees. Not only are those awaiting asylum not protected, but they are often kept for long periods of time in detention centers.

It is not uncommon for such people to file lawsuits seeking special permission to remain in Japan. When faced with such facts, can we brush away the accusation that Japan is "cold" toward refugees? We took a close look at one Kurdish family's plight to find out.

"It's not like I committed any crimes. All I did was come to Japan because I feared persecution, and filed for refugee status," said Mehmet Colak, a 38-year-old Kurd from Turkey, at a visitation room at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in the capital's Minato Ward, where he has been detained since last January. "Why do I have to continue being bullied?"

The first hearing of a lawsuit seeking special residence permission for Colak took place at the Tokyo District Court on April 19. The plaintiffs are the five members of Colak's family, and his 37-year-old wife and three sons showed up at court.

The Kurdish people are said to be the world's largest stateless ethnic group, and have long been the target of discrimination and persecution in Turkey. Colak, whose family members were involved in the Kurdish independence movement, feared that he was at risk of harm, and in 2004 came to Japan, relying on relatives who were already here. His wife joined him after giving birth to their eldest son, and the family settled in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. The family's applications for asylum were rejected multiple times, and they were relegated to an unstable status called "provisional release." In January 2018, when the family visited the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau to renew their provisional release status, only Colak's application was denied and he was detained.

Colak's 15-year-old eldest son submitted a document to the court imploring the judge to allow the family to live together in Japan. It began, "I was 2 years old when I came to Japan. I have no memories of Turkey."

Deportation orders have been issued for the entire Colak family, even the two younger sons, aged 11 and 8, who were both born in Japan. "To deport them goes against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- which are part of the International Bill of Human Rights, and which Japan has ratified -- and is clearly illegal," points out the family's representative, attorney Masaichi Hikawa.

In March, Colak, who was in detention at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, fell extremely ill. Immigration authorities twice turned away an ambulance that his family had called to the detention center on Colak's behalf. The incident was even brought up in the Diet. The Tokyo Bar Association released a statement in the association chair's name demanding that immigration authorities provide detainees with appropriate medical care.

A few days later, Colak's 11-year-old son wrote a letter addressed to "the people at the Immigration Bureau": "How is my father doing? I couldn't sleep because I'm worried about him. I write so many letters, but only time goes by and nothing happens, and my father doesn't come home."

When this reporter told Colak about the contents of the letter during a visit with him at the detention center, Colak almost yelled as he said, "What is going to happen to the lives and futures of children so sweet as him? This is not Syria (where many Kurds died in the civil war), this is a country with the world's third biggest economy." His gaunt body trembled, and tears flowed from his eyes.

Between last year and March of this year, five Kurdish families, including the Colaks, filed lawsuits seeking special residence permission. According to their attorneys, a worldwide average of approximately 35% of Turkish citizens who applied for refugee status in 2017 were granted asylum. In Japan, there is not one example of a Turkish citizen being granted refugee status.

Colak's eldest son, who is good at math, wrote in a statement submitted to the court about his future dreams: "I would like to get my credentials to be a teacher, and do a good job teaching math to foreign students who have entered elementary school partway through and are not good at hiragana characters and Japanese. This is because I think I can make use of my experience of having struggled at a Japanese elementary school and understand the feelings of those children. I want to become a teacher who helps his students."

According to figures compiled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for 2017, the Japanese government recognized only 20 people as refugees that year -- the lowest figure among all G-7 countries. Germany had the most, at 147,671 people, while Italy, with the second lowest among G-7 countries, had 5,895. Japan alone recognized less than 1% of asylum seekers as refugees.

There is an internal Japanese government document that indicates that efforts have been made to artificially suppress the number of asylum seekers. It is an "administrative memo" circulated within the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau's Narita Airport District Immigration Office, dated Nov. 16, 2018. Referring to the rise in asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, the memo noted that there was "an urgent need to reduce the number of refugee applications," and gave instructions to seek confirmation in writing from Sri Lankan nationals entering Japan "whether they would be returning to Sri Lanka within their visa period" and "whether there were any circumstances that might make their return to Sri Lanka difficult."

Attorney Shogo Watanabe, head of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, says, "This is not only discrimination toward people of a certain nationality, but exposes Japanese immigration authorities' attitude of not wanting to allow these people into the country."

Japan signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981. "The measures taken by Japanese immigration are impermissible for a country that has signed the convention," Watanabe continues. "I suspect that if the measures prove successful, Japanese authorities plan to target people of other nationalities."

Watanabe also points out that there is "an absolute contradiction" in the fact that a single government agency -- the Ministry of Justice -- has jurisdiction over both immigration and refugee status determination. With the revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law going into effect on April 1 this year, the Ministry of Justice Immigration Bureau became the Immigration Services Agency. If the Japanese government is truly aspiring to create a multicultural society, shouldn't the government agencies that oversee foreign laborers' everyday lives be equipped with a sense of human rights that befits the job?

(Japanese original by Jun Ida, Integrated Digital News Center)

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