Second in a three-part series on Japan’s refugee policy

Staff writer

On a cold night in November 1995, Reza sneaked out of a Panamanian freighter anchored at Yokohama port and ran to a local police box to seek help, betting on his chance for a better life in a new country.

Now he wonders if his bet paid off. Although the 24-year-old Iraqi was granted refugee status last year — the only political refugee accepted by Japan during the year — his adjustment to life in Japan has been far from smooth.

Reza — not his real name — is one of the few political refugees admitted by Japan under an international convention on refugees. He is one of many who have been tormented by lengthy asylum procedures in the country as well as a lack of government support once he was recognized as a refugee.

Three years ago, when he sought help at the police box, officers turned him over to immigration authorities for illegally entering Japan.

He waited for results of his asylum application for nearly two years, spending 1 1/2 years at an immigration facility, and was treated as an illegal alien. “Nobody told me when or if I would be admitted as a refugee,” he recently recalled at a refugee resettlement center in Shinagawa, Tokyo, where he lives and takes an intensive Japanese-language course along with Indochinese refugees. “I thought I would be detained forever.”

Detention hit him hard, especially since he never intended to live in Japan. Reza says he originally hoped to resettle somewhere in Europe, as many of his fellow Iraqis did.

Born into a wealthy Shiite family in Baghdad, he was expelled from Iraq when he was about 10 years old as part of the government’s anti-Shiite campaign.

One night, police came to his house and forced his family, along with others, into a bus and dropped them off near the Iranian border. From there, they walked for three days and crossed the border, he said.

Life in Iran was harsh for him. His family was despised for being Arab in the Persian-dominated nation and was denied citizenship. In July 1995, he sneaked on board a ship, pretending to be a worker, as it left a port in Iran.

But his dream of reaching Europe never came true. By the time the freighter had made about 20 stops — first in Japan, then in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan again — he realized it would never get to Europe. When the ship stopped in Yokohama, he applied for entry into Japan through the Japan office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but his application was rejected.

So on that November night, he crept off the ship and wandered into the city. “It was cold outside,” Reza said. “And I had no money.” His time in detention depressed him so much that he had to be heavily tranquilized, said Jenia Kureeda, an Iranian woman who has volunteered to interpret for him. When he was released from an immigration facility in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, in May 1997, he was only a step short of going insane, she recalled.

After receiving refugee status in October 1997, he worked for a car parts factory in Niisato, Gunma Prefecture. But his 12-hour shifts left him with no time to learn Japanese, get to know coworkers or make friends. “He used to ask me, ‘Am I dead or alive? Who would care if I died?'” said Kureeda, who also helps other Persian-speaking foreigners. “When he was working at the factory, I called him every other day to show somebody cared.”

Kureeda says a problem such as Reza’s cannot be resolved only by volunteers, claiming the government should intervene and take better care of its refugees, including their psychological needs.

Faced with an influx of boat people following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Japan decided to accept Indochinese refugees by establishing an intergovernmental council within the Cabinet. It has accepted more than 10,000 refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos since 1979, and offers them Japanese-language classes and job counseling. But it has done little for refugees from other parts of the world.

When Japan signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, it changed domestic laws so that non-Indochinese refugees are eligible for government assistance in areas such as education and welfare. But it did not establish a central body to oversee the refugees’ welfare.

During the past decade, through last year, Japan accepted only 31 refugees under the convention. The number of asylum applications has jumped considerably in the last few years, with 242 people filing for asylum last year. This year, 126 people have applied as of Monday, and 14 have been granted political asylum.

Hidenari Arimura, an official at the Foreign Ministry’s Foreign Policy Bureau, acknowledged that a resettlement plan for refugees should have been considered when Japan joined the convention. “But it wasn’t, and we don’t know why it wasn’t,” Arimura said.

An official at the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, while conceding that there is a lack of coordination among the ministries, says it is unlikely for the government — let alone the ministry — to propose a new program for refugees based on the convention amid the recent trend toward administrative downsizing.

Sosuke Seki, a lawyer who has helped Reza, laments that Japan does not meet the convention’s standard on treatment of refugees. “If you read the convention, you can see that it plainly says the government is obligated to provide its refugees with generous assistance in housing, employment, education, lifestyle adjustment and medical care,” he said.

The refugee resettlement center in Shinagawa initially refused to accept Reza, saying it is for Indochinese only. He and Seki visited various ministries to convince them that if he does not learn Japanese right away, he will never be able to do so.

In July, the government’s coordination panel on Indochinese refugees eventually decided to allow him into a four-month program at the center.

On weekends, Reza ventures out to Shibuya or Harajuku, on his own or with a Cambodian friend he made at the center. “I just take a stroll,” he said shyly at the resettlement center, located in a deserted waterfront area dotted by storage facilities. “It’s just too lonely out here.”

But when he is not in class, he spends most of his time working on his homework or sleeping in his tidy 7 1/2-tatami room in the center’s concrete apartment housing.

Asked if his new life is worth the hardship he has gone through, Reza shook his head. “I’ve become old.”

The program he is in will end Dec. 28 and after that, he must make it on his own. Reza is betting that his driver’s license, which he obtained in Iran and is trying to get converted into a valid one here, will help him land a job. He wants to work as a truck driver or car repairman.

He will soon find out if he wins his bet this time.

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