Visitors to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau can’t miss a giant banner strung over the main hall of Shinagawa JR Station. Sponsored by the bureau, the sign implores those who pass under it to obey the rules as Japan globalizes. In the household of Erdal Dogan, it provokes hollow laughs.
“We have followed the rules. It is the government that has broken them,” says the 33-year-old Kurd. “They ignore international rules for the treatment of refugees.”
Eight-and-a-half difficult years after coming to Japan to claim political asylum, he is leaving for Canada with his family.
Dogan arrived in Tokyo in January 1999, fleeing ethic and religious persecution in Turkey. According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, 3,000 Kurdish villages in Turkey were obliterated in the 1980s and 90s, sending hundreds of thousands of people like him abroad. Most went to Europe and North America.
In May 2000, he was joined by his wife Meryem and brother Deniz. His daughter, Merve, came to Japan two years later, and his son, Mehmet, was born here. But the family was not welcomed. Instead, their application for asylum was twice rejected and they were declared illegal over-stayers, in constant danger of being deported back to Turkey.
Trapped in legal purgatory, Erdal spent over 12 months in a detention center for illegal immigrants, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. Astonishingly, the authorities had made no provisions for supporting families in cases where they had taken away the main breadwinner.
Charity workers, Christians and ordinary Japanese people stepped in to keep Meryem and her children afloat. Ignored by most of the media, The Japan Times was the first publication to call attention to the family’s plight in a dingy Saitama apartment in 2003.
That same year, Erdal went on a 60-day hunger strike in the detention center and permanently damaged his health.
“I still suffer from the shakes and headaches,” he said last week.
National and international protests against the treatment of the Kurds and Japan’s dismal asylum record — the country has yet to accept a single Kurdish refugee — were ignored. Instead, Tokyo sent a “fact-finding” mission to Turkey to ask the government there whether they were persecuting Kurds, a move one researcher close to the case describes as “stupid and immoral.”
Amnesty International also condemned the move.
“By providing information regarding the applications of the asylum-seekers to the Turkish authorities, the Japanese government has increased the risk of serious human rights violations including arbitrary detention, torture and ill treatment if the asylum seekers are forcibly returned,” the organization said at the time.
In July 2004, after Japanese authorities in Turkey visited Erdal Dogan’s home with Turkish police and talked to his relatives, the Dogans and another Kurdish family, the Kazankirans, staged a 72-day sit-in outside the United Nations University in Tokyo in a futile attempt to win refugee status.
The government responded six months later by putting Ahmet Kazankiran and his eldest son, Ramazan, on a plane back to Turkey.
The Kazankirans have since been reunited in New Zealand.
Finally, in 2007, came light at the end of the tunnel. An application for permanent refugee status was accepted by the Canadian government.
On June 22, the family went to pick up a one-month special visa from the Shinagawa Immigration Office, their legal passport out of Japan and into their new lives. One TV camera was there to record the event.
After years of desperate poverty and uncertainty, Meryem, who has been in and out of hospital for the last few years, was delighted. Many of her new friends in Japan had never seen her smile until last month.
“Canada will be cold but at least we’ll be free to get on with our lives there,” she said. “It will be a new beginning.”
Canada will not be easy. The family must, as Erdal puts it, “start from scratch again.” They speak no English, have little money, no property and they’ll be relying on a childhood family friend in Toronto to get them through the first months.
“We can’t live off him forever,” Erdal says. His brother Deniz, who married a Japanese woman and finally won a one-year special residency permit, must stay behind.
Erdal describes his time in Japan as filled with “nothing but sadness and heartache,” but says he would still like to stay.
“I don’t want to leave my friends and brother behind and have to start all over again,” he says in fluent Japanese. “A lot of people have been kind to us here and I’m really grateful, though I resent the government a lot. But at least my children will get a chance in Canada.”
At a press conference after the refugee status was granted, the Dogans’ lawyer, Takeshi Ohashi, said the family’s case has shamed Japan.
“While I am relieved that the Dogans are no longer in fear of being deported (back to Turkey) and have been recognized as refugees in Canada, this result is an embarrassment for our country,” he said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Takumi Sato rejected that criticism.
“We made our decision on the Dogans according to our own laws and standards and believe we did nothing wrong,” he said.
Sato accepted that Japan is probably unique among advanced countries in not accepting a single Kurdish refugee but said that nationality had nothing to do with the case.
“It is just a coincidence.”
As for whether Japan’s standards are too stringent, as Ohashi and others have argued, Sato said “that is a matter of opinion.”
According to the Ministry of Justice home page, Japan accepted just 18 refugees — from any country — last year. In 10 years’ time, Merve Dogan will be 18 and will speak more English than Japanese as her memories of the first years of her life fade.
“My daughter is smart,” says her father. “I want her to become a lawyer. Perhaps both of my children will work for the Canadian government. I’d like to return the favor to the government for accepting us.
“It is the least we can do.”
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