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Japan’s refugee policies failing

Kurd came to 'wrong' country; now he can't leave

by David Mcneill

Erbil Suleyman has never read the Czech writer Franz Kafka, but he should. Since arriving in Narita Airport on Nov. 13, 1998, as a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, Suleyman’s life has resembled one of Kafka’s stories, with their hapless characters trapped in absurd situations over which they have little or no control.

“I realize now I came to the wrong country,” he says.

Suleyman hails from the southeastern region of Turkey, where most of the country’s estimated 10 million Kurds live. Amid growing support for Kurdish nationalism and for the rebel group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, the Turkish government initiated a campaign of repression, forcibly evicting hundreds of thousands from their homes.

It was from this situation that the 38-year-old fled in 1997, leaving his family behind, and originally heading for Germany.

“But I ended up in Moscow and from there flew to Tokyo. I had a fake Italian passport so I was immediately under suspicion.” It was the beginning of a nightmare that has yet to end.

Despite applying for political refugee status, in March 1998 he was put in a detention center for immigrants where he says he shared a tiny room for 59 days with eight other people imprisoned for overstaying their visas.

Inside, he learned that Japan had accepted less than 50 refugees in the whole of the 1990s. In 2001, the country gave refugee status to a grand total of 24 people.

Of course, Japan is not under any obligation to help anyone, right?

Well, not really. Apart from moral considerations and promises made in treaties like the 1951 Refugee Convention, Japan has supported three major conflicts since 1990; the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and the current plan to invade Iraq, and wars invariably increase the flow of refugees. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, up to 500,000 Kurds fled across the Iraqi border into Turkey.

It is for this reason Suleyman, despite having every reason to hate Saddam Hussein, who has murdered thousands of Kurds, doesn’t support the current war or even the U.N. embargo of Iraq.

“Saddam’s children haven’t suffered from the embargo, just the poor,” he says.

Japan’s policies on refugees have been widely criticized since the problem began growing in the late 1990s.

Indeed, the policies’ most outspoken critic has been Sadako Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and one of Japan’s most respected figures on the international scene.

Last summer, two Afghan men with pending refugee applications committed suicide in Osaka and Aichi Prefecture. One had just heard that his wife and children were killed during the U.S.-bombing of his country.

At the end of last year, the Justice Ministry admitted that in the previous 12 months, there had been at least 34 cases of asylum seekers at immigration facilities intentionally inflicting injury on themselves.

According to Mitsuru Namba, an attorney who handles refugee cases, these incidents are dramatic evidence that Japan’s approach to the refugee issue is failing.

“There have been to my knowledge at least another seven or eight attempted suicides,” he says. “The Japanese government supports wars like the one in Afghanistan then runs away from its responsibilities. There’s a real mismatch between Japan’s international and domestic faces on these issues.”

Freed in May 1998, thanks to help from Japanese supporters and a 500,000 yen bond, Suleyman began to fight his case, but after the first of many rejections he was back to the detention center.

“I’ve spent 19 months locked up in total,” he says. “There’s very little difference between these places and prisons.”

Five years after touching down here, he is still wriggling on a very short Immigration Bureau leash.

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) supports his case, as do a number of Japanese support groups, he is still unable to move around the country without permission.

He hasn’t got a passport, so he can’t leave for somewhere else, and he can’t officially work because he has no visa. All he can do is wait for a decision to emerge from the bureaucratic bowels of Kasumigaseki on what to do with him. But, given Japan’s stingy treatment of refugees and with no passport, there is a chance he will be sent back to Turkey, where he is likely to face harsh treatment.

At 37, and with a blood pressure complaint that needs drugs he can’t afford, he finds it tougher to get the sort of laboring jobs that are the mainstay of illegal workers.

Some of his Kurdish refugee friends in Japan have grown so impatient, they’re going on hunger strike.

In the meantime, Suleyman waits for his next court date.