Desperate Kurd plays final asylum card

Man hoping to escape persecution files last-minute special residency bid

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

The 42-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker’s wife and four children fled back to Turkey more than a year ago, terrified about the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear crisis, but he stayed on, in limbo, hoping beyond hope that he would be permitted to remain in Japan.

The man, who was living in Saitama Prefecture and asked that his name be withheld to protect his privacy, is not allowed to work and doesn’t qualify for health insurance as the government has rejected his four previous applications for refugee status.

But he also ruled out the option of returning to Turkey to rejoin his family, saying he fears persecution from authorities that allege he is connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — which has been branded as a terrorist group by Turkey and other countries, including the United States.

“I can’t go back to Turkey, where (the authorities) tortured me,” the man told The Japan Times recently. “They kicked us out of our home and village, burning down houses and buildings.”

But even though Kurds have long accused Ankara of persecuting them, no Turkish national has been granted refugee status in Japan over the past 30 years, Justice Ministry data show.

So the man has had to resort to the only remaining option: a special residence permit issued on humanitarian grounds by the justice minister.

Although Japan became a party to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, it has come under fierce criticism from the international community over the extremely low number of applications accepted.

Immigration officials screened about 3,000 applicants for refugee status last year but approved only 21 — less than 1 percent.

However, 248 of those rejected were instead issued with special residence permits that are granted on a case by case basis, the Justice Ministry said.

Unfortunately, a positive outcome in the Saitama man’s case appears unlikely because only 36 Turkish nationals have received such permits in the last three decades, the ministry’s data show.

On Wednesday, the man and his supporters sought the assistance of Social Democratic Party lawmaker Ryoichi Hattori, who met with Justice Ministry officials the same day to plead his case.

“I think the refugee recognition issue highlights Japan’s lack of awareness of international human rights,” Hattori said. “I think the government and politicians have a responsibility to help out (the Saitama man and his family). I am hoping we can resolve this issue on humanitarian grounds.”

Takeshi Ohashi, secretary general of a group of lawyers supporting Kurdish asylum seekers, said the Saitama man will find it hard to win a special residence permit based on alleged persecution, given Japan’s long-standing cordial relations with Turkey.

Ohashi also voiced concern that global counterterrorism measures introduced in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have enabled countries like Turkey to crack down and persecute ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds, with effective impunity as long as such actions are carried out in the name of counterterrorism.

“The human rights situation in Turkey for alleged political offenders is grave, but Japan has been making light of it. . . . What’s more, given the current support (of the international community) for counterterrorism efforts, Japan is not going to accuse Turkey of persecuting” its Kurdish community, Ohashi said.

Still, many other countries grant refugee status to Turkish asylum seekers. In 2010, for example, France approved 869 such applicants, followed by Germany with 276, Switzerland with 257 and Canada with 158, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

A UNHCR official said that while the data are sorted by nationality instead of ethnicity, the majority of applicants are Kurds.

And despite their dismal track record, the number of Turkish asylum seekers in Japan remains relatively high. Last year, 234 filed for refugee status — the third-highest tally after 491 Myanmar nationals and 251 Nepalese.

The Saitama man admits he regularly supplied PKK fighters with food but says that was his only involvement with the outlawed party. The Turkish government, however, blacklisted his family and evicted them from their village, while authorities also interrogated him repeatedly.

The PKK launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state in 1984, seeking to establish an autonomous state of Kurdistan. The conflict has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives to date, although in recent years the party has shifted its focus toward achieving greater cultural and linguistic rights for Kurds in Turkey.

Fearing for his life, the man and his family fled to Japan with the help of a go-between in 1999 and he submitted his first application for refugee status that year. After it was rejected, he filed a suit against the Japanese government in 2002 with the help of lawyer Ohashi, demanding the decision be overturned.

But though the courts ultimately rejected the case, Ohashi noted that the rulings recognized the man had been persecuted by Turkish authorities and could be subjected to further interrogations if he were to be sent home.

The man’s wife and children left Japan in April 2011, a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered the nuclear crisis.

Based on their recollections of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, which lies less than 1,400 km from Turkey and caused widespread alarm among its population, the family immediately feared that fallout from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could reach their home in Saitama.

Confusion and panic during the early stages of the crisis spread rapidly among foreign communities, especially after some embassies temporarily closed or moved their offices out of Tokyo and even helped their nationals flee the country.

With little access to information and the circulation of disturbing and often completely false rumors, including that foreigners lacking legal residency would not be allowed into evacuation centers if the disaster worsened, the Saitama man and his wife initially were at a loss over what to do. They also feared their children might be denied proper medical care for potential radiation exposure because they lacked health insurance.

In the end, they decided the best option to ensure their children’s safety would be for the wife to take them back to Turkey, even though they might face further persecution.

“It was an extremely hard decision to make and I think it may have been a mistake,” the man said. “But one thing is for certain — I would never have forgiven myself if something had happened to my children because of the nuclear accident.”

To further complicate matters, those deported from Japan are barred from re-entering for five years under current law.

“My family is gone but I can’t go back to my country, so I am hoping the justice minister will grant a special residence permit that will reunite me with my loved ones,” the man said.