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Refugees treated like criminals

Japan Times readers help Kurdish family

by David Mcneill

Last month, these pages carried the story of a Kurdish family that came to Japan seeking asylum, only to be torn apart by the country’s arcane immigration laws.

The experience of Erdal Dogan, his wife Meryem and their two small children, suggested a system that was failing badly to deal with the growing refugee problem.

Erdal has been held with his brother Deniz in a center for illegal immigrants and visa overstayers for months, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves with the help of an over-stretched support sector.

Since the article went to press, there is good and bad news to report on the status of Erdal and his family. A number of Japan Times readers have sent much-needed clothes and food to Meryem and her children, while some readers have helped to pay the family’s utility bills, assistance for which Meryen is “truly thankful.” The Foreign Office-related Refugee Assistance H.Q. is also helping with day-to-day expenses.

Moreover, the article has persuaded the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tokyo to take another look at Erdal’s application for U.N. recognition of his case.

However, Erdal himself remains in the care of the East Japan Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, forced to wear prison clothes and apply for written permission to hug his children.

And in March, after his application for temporary release was rejected, Erdal and Deniz decided to hunger strike.

Erdal is one of hundreds of asylum seekers incarcerated in crowded cells for up to 18 months while their case files bounce between dusty bureaucratic offices.

Erdal’s compatriots get a particularly raw deal. Of over 300 Turkish Kurds who have applied for refugee status since 1998, not one has been accepted. Tokyo’s zero tolerance for Kurdish asylum seekers compares poorly with the 19 percent acceptance rate (in 2001) of Germany, 33 percent for Switzerland and 77 percent for Canada. Even stingy Britain, at 3 percent, is more open.

When I saw Erdal on April 21, he had been without food for almost a month and his weight had dropped from a stocky 85 kg to just 69 kg.

Talking from behind a glass screen and with a guard at his side, Erdal said he was suffering from constant headaches and was having difficulty keeping down water because his stomach had started to close.

But why hunger strike?

“Because there is no other way. All we did is apply for refugee status and they put us in prison. The whole world accepts Kurdish refugees but in more than eight years this country has never accepted one of us.”

Was there any reaction from the authorities?

“Nobody has come at all, even though we told the government before we started. The doctors and guards inside of course want me to give up because I’m causing them trouble, but nobody wants to understand the problem.”

How far will he go?

“I’m not going to stop until they accept that we have a right to be treated with dignity and if they refuse, then I’ll continue to the end.

“I won’t accept if they try to force feed me. They have to negotiate.” Meryem is worried sick but agrees “there is no other way.”

Both the Ministry of Justice and the Ushiku authorities declined to comment on the case, citing “privacy issues.”

Erdal’s lawyer, Takeshi Ohashi, says the situation is at a very dangerous point. “His body has weakened considerably, and his headaches are worrying, but our own doctors can’t check him because the glass partition prevents a proper examination. He’s very worried about his family, which is weakening him mentally, and he has banged his head against the cell walls in frustration on a couple of occasions.”

Ohashi says that while the “terrible” position of his family marks Erdal’s case out, his situation in the detention center is “not unusual at all.”

“There are so many people who have been locked up like this since the refugee problem started to grow, and the new immigration law (currently being pushed through the Diet) will make things no better at all, because it will still mean people like Erdal being placed in detention centers while their cases are pending.”

Is anyone else helping?

“The U.N. in Japan is doing its best but it doesn’t have enough people. It’s doing the job that the government is supposed to be doing” — sorting out asylum claims.

Diego Rosero of the UNHCR in Tokyo admits that it is struggling to deal with the scale of the problem but says the situation in Japan is changing, slowly.

“We are seeing quite a few judges at local levels breaking ranks on asylum cases to criticize government policy and that’s a good sign, but we have some way to go here.

“In the meantime, refugees should be treated decently and have their human rights respected while their claims are being processed.”

There is little of that in Ushiku, where Erdal, his brother and their fellow Kurd Yilmaz Hasan, who has been inside for 14 months, fight a lonely battle for release.

“We just want the Japanese people to understand that the immigration rules here are illegal and that the authorities have no right to treat us like criminals,” says Erdal.

“We’re just ordinary people like you.”