In a ramshackle Yokohama house smelling of damp and rotting wood, Nasir Qadri and his family await their fate.
The Pakistani national, his wife, Shaheena, and their five children are asylum seekers who arrived in Japan on Aug. 25, 2009. But although they have survived the March 11 quake and months of hand to mouth existence, they are in despair and threatening suicide.
For most of their stay here they have been living on emergency aid from the government-run Refugee Assistance Headquarters. But this month, the money was abruptly terminated, leaving them effectively destitute.
On March 4, Qadri received an RHQ demand that he return ¥5.7 million in assistance paid from October 2009.
“How can I return it when we don’t have any money,” he says. “We are refugees.”
The family is living hand-to-mouth, unable to work or support itself. Their electricity and gas are in danger of being cut off. There is little food in the fridge. None of his children are in school. Shaheena is ill and pregnant with the couple’s sixth child. Their 15-year-old daughter, Iqra Batool, has a huge abscess on her leg that doctors are struggling to treat.
On March 14, Qadri was summoned to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Shinagawa, where he feared he would be detained, leaving his wife and five children to fend for themselves. He vowed not to be detained again.
“We will die, no problem. But we will not be arrested,” he said.
On their last visit to the Shinagawa office to voluntarily discuss their refugee application on Jan. 7, Qadri and his family were surrounded by more than a dozen immigration officers who prevented them from leaving. In the melee that followed, Qadri, a strict Muslim, says his turban was snatched from his head and his wife’s burqa was removed, exposing her face.
A YouTube clip shows an angry Qadri demanding that the officers leave his wife alone.
“He didn’t resort to violence; it was the immigration officers who acted first,” insists Yujiro Tsuneo, who is part of a small group of supporters. “He was arrested because immigration officers alleged he hit them. But the public prosecutors declined to take the case any further for lack of evidence.”
Qadri was arrested by police and held for 19 days, while his 1-year-old daughter, Ashah Batool, who was born in Japan, was taken from her parents. When they tried to reclaim her, they say the police demanded her birth certificate. When she returned home days later, she had grown thinner, suffered from a high fever and cried continuously, says her father, who calls her treatment “child abuse.”
The RHQ will not comment on any of these claims, citing privacy concerns by its parent, the Foreign Ministry. But it says asylum seekers on average receive financial support for just four months, extended in some emergency cases.
“We’re using taxpayers’ money so it’s natural that we are careful about who we give it to,” said RHQ spokesman Shin Ohara.
He will not discuss the arrest or why the family’s aid was cut off, but those close to the case say that Qadri incurred the wrath of RHQ officials when he tried to bill them for his wife’s hospital pregnancy checkup.
He insists he knew nothing about rules barring them from doing so. The RHQ concluded his report about medical expenditures was “false,” then decided to stop the payment and ask for reimbursement, according to an explanation sent to Masako Suzuki, a lawyer who is following the case.
Supporters have criticized the demand for reimbursement as vindictive and pointless, but for now their priority is finding where the family should turn for help.
Most refugees turn to the small nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees, which two weeks ago gave the family ¥100,000 in emergency help.
Association spokeswoman Mihoko Kashima points out, however, that their capacity is limited and they only try to bridge the gap in support for people who, in worst cases, end up homeless.
“We try to advocate that all asylum seekers in need should be assisted by the government of Japan,” she said.
Ohara suggests the Qadri family try an NGO such as Second Harvest Japan.
Its founder, Charles E. McJilton, says they offer two 15- to 20-kg packages of food per month, for a maximum of three months. Then the family is on its own again. Still, he doesn’t criticize the RHQ, which he says is doing its best. “What’s problematic is that so few people get refugee status.”
How few? Just 410 of the roughly 5,000 asylum seekers who have applied in Japan in almost three decades have been accepted. Critics say the selection process is deeply politicized and tilted toward Myanmar: Nearly half of all successful applicants are from that country.
Last September, Japan began accepting the first batch of 90 Myanmar refugees as part of Asia’s first-ever resettlement program, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “It seems to be only granted to people from Burma,” says McJilton, using the former name for Myanmar.
Japan is obliged to protect the basic human rights of refugees as a signatory to the U.N. 1951 Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. But while refugees wait for their applications to be processed, many are close to destitution and once they are refused they face deportation back to their home countries.
Qadri says his life was in danger in Pakistan after he wrote books criticizing the government and al-Qaida, claims The Japan Times couldn’t verify.
He applied for refugee status in Japan on Sept. 15, 2009. His application was denied on Jan. 21 this year. He has now abandoned hope of living in Japan and wants a temporary visa to leave the country. “We don’t want to stay here.”
Japan’s immigration policies, in effect, push asylum seekers and refugees like the Qadris onto third countries, but then trap them in legal limbo, refusing to issue documents that would make passage easier.
“We are being deported, but what country will accept us like that?” says Qadri. “I need a proper exit visa to travel. Australia says it will give us an emergency medical treatment visa, but we need proper papers first.”
A hospital examination a month ago on the pregnant Shaheena revealed a long list of ailments, including backbone and kidney problems and influenza.
She has been taking painkillers, which the family can no longer afford.
“This is not a show of humanity,” she says. “We are fighting, fighting all the time. They all get together to cheat us: the immigration people, RHQ and the police.”
Perhaps understandably, her husband talks in increasingly apocalyptic terms. “The immigration people want to kill me and my family,” he says. “I will die first.”
Says Tsuneo: “I am afraid that he is almost suicidal. We have to keep what hope they have left alive, and to get human rights organizations and international and domestic communities interested in helping them.”