All Kurdish asylum-seeker Erdal Dogan wanted was a peaceful home for himself and his family.
For more than eight years, Dogan fought in vain to be recognized as a refugee in Japan. And now, his battle is over. He and his family have been granted asylum — in Canada.
Back home in Turkey, Dogan, 33, was involved in antigovernment Kurdish-based activities. He witnessed his friends and relatives being detained and tortured by military officials. Fearing persecution after being repeatedly arrested, Dogan fled to Japan in 1999.
But that was just the beginning of another long struggle for survival. Twice, he applied to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau for refugee status — and both times he was rejected. He also filed a lawsuit to have the rejection revoked, but the Supreme Court ruled against him in March 2006.
In order to tell the public the severe situation of asylum-seekers in Japan, the Dogans — Erdal himself, his wife Meryem, their two children, Merve, 8, and Mehmet, 5, and his younger brother, Deniz — along with another Kurdish family, the Kazankirans — staged a 72-day sit-in outside of the United Nations University building in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. Under the scorching sun in July 2004, the two families began the protest with slogans shouting “We are humans, not insects!” and “We want justice!”
The Japanese government, however, continued to ignore their pleas and Dogan was detained twice in immigration centers for a total of more than a year. Meanwhile, Ahmet and Ramazan, the father and son of the Kazankiran family, were deported to Turkey in January 2005, triggering harsh criticism domestically and internationally.
“The Japanese government do not treat us like human beings,” said Dogan in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “We have had to live in fear every day of being detained or deported (back to Turkey).”
After watching the Kazankiran family being torn apart, Dogan gave up on Japan and decided to apply for refugee status in Canada. Two years later, his bid was finally accepted by the Canadian government.
“I am actually not that happy,” said Dogan, expressing his mixed feelings over the recognition. “I spent eight and a half years — that is one fourth of my life — in Japan, learning the language and culture, and I wanted to stay here. Now, my family will have to start all over again.”
Dogan’s lawyer, Takeshi Ohashi, expressed his joy over the recognition.
“I am happy and also relieved that the Dogans have been given protec- tion by the Canadian government,” said Ohashi. “But at the same time, this proves that the Dogans should have been given protection by the Japanese government.”
Ohashi slammed the Japanese government for not fulfilling its duty as a signatory of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
“It is clear that the Japanese government’s actions taken on Dogan up to now — detaining him, preventing him from working, denying him social welfare, tormenting him by robbing his freedom and placing him in fear of deportation (to Turkey) — was a mistake,” Ohashi said.
The Justice Ministry brushed off the fact that Canada recognized someone Japan denied as a refugee, reiterating that Dogan did not meet Japan’s standards as a refugee.
Japan signed the U.N. 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, and the following year it joined the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as someone in “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Since 1982, when Japan enacted the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, 4,882 asylum-seekers have applied for refugee status. Only 410, however, have been granted such status, including 145 from Myanmar — but no Turkish Kurds.
The Justice Ministry argued that it is just by coincidence that no Turkish Kurd has been recognized, because they review the applications case-by-case. But Ohashi said he believes diplomacy is involved.
“The Turkish government has been justifying its actions of human-rights violations against the Kurds by calling it an antiterrorism measure,” Ohashi said. “If Japan recognizes (the Turkish government’s) action as a violation against human rights, that will damage the cooperating relationship between the Japanese and Turkish security authorities.”
In an attempt to improve the refugee recognition system, the Diet enacted the revision of the refugee law in 2004 to introduce “refugee examination counselors.” This third- party group made up of lawyers, academics, former prosecutors and judges, goes over cases that have been rejected once and then appealed and advise the justice minister whether the asylum-seeker should be recognized as a refugee.
But Ohashi pointed out the problem with the system is that it lacks objectivity because the section that controls immigration is also overseeing refugee recognition.
“Refugee recognition falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, which goes without saying is not independent from the government at all,” Ohashi said.
Eri Ishikawa, of the NGO Japan Association for Refugees, stressed that the lack of livelihood support from the government for asylum- seekers is also a major issue. As many of them are not permitted to hold jobs, asylum-seekers’ bid for refugee status also becomes a battle for survival.
“Even if these asylum-seekers finally make their way to Japan, not only do they not know how to apply for refugee status but they also have no money, nothing to eat, nor a place to stay,” Ishikawa said.
Ishikawa also pointed out that many asylum-seekers, fleeing from fear of persecution, are under severe mental strain.
“Asylum-seekers are worried about the family members back home, often bearing guilt that they fled by themselves, leaving their families behind,” Ishikawa said. “Some have also even experienced or witnessed torture.”
And like Dogan, many asylum-seekers are in constant fear of arbitrary detention and deportation. “I can finally sleep at night,” said Dogan, referring to being granted asylum in Canada.
But leaving for Canada for Dogan means being separated from his younger brother, Deniz, who married a Japanese woman in 2006 and was therefore denied refugee status by Canada. Instead, he received a special residence permit in Japan at the end of last month.
“I am just sad,” Deniz said. “Our family, our race, can’t live together because we have no freedom in our home country. I was able to live with my brother during the years we spent in Japan but now we are going to be separated again. How many times must we endure this separation?”
Dogan, Meryem and their two children are getting ready to leave for Canada this month. Just like when Dogan arrived in Japan, he and his family must start their lives all over again in a new country.
“It is extremely painful to leave my brother and the life I have built in Japan,” Dogan said. “But I believe we can make it in Canada.”
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