Since October last year, there have been at least 34 cases in which asylum seekers at immigration facilities purposefully injured themselves, with some even going so far as to attempt suicide, the Justice Ministry has admitted.

The figure was revealed by a ministry official responding to a question from Satoshi Inoue, a Japanese Communist Party member, during a recent House of Councilors Judicial Committee session.

While Japan has accepted more than 10,000 immigrants from Indochina since 1979 as a special measure, the government has subjected asylum seekers from other countries to a far stricter and often muddy screening process.

The nation is often criticized for running counter to the spirit of the United Nations convention on refugees, which obliges signatory states to protect people facing persecution at home.

Japan joined the convention in 1982.

Since 2000, at least 40 people from Afghanistan have sought asylum in Japan. Not one has been recognized as a refugee. Many experienced several months of detention in immigration facilities while their applications were being processed, and several are still being held.

While languishing in detention, numerous Afghans have suffered severe stress. Some drank soap; others attempted to swallow metal objects or tried to hang themselves.

“We might have been killed in Afghanistan just by one shot by the Taliban,” said one Afghan asylum seeker in his 20s who said he fled Taliban persecution because he is a member of the Hazara ethnic group.

“But in the immigration center here (it feels as though) we are being killed every day.”

“Japan’s refugee-recognition system is like a long dark tunnel,” said Kiyohiko Toyama, a House of Councilors member from New Komeito, a partner in the ruling coalition. “Once you get in, you never know when you will get out.”

Last May, another Afghan asylum seeker from the Hazara ethnic group hanged himself in his apartment in Aichi Prefecture.

According to his friends, the man, in his late 20s, had suffered depression since he was seriously injured in a car accident in March while transporting used auto parts.

Unable to work, the man worried about medical bills and living expenses. According to friends, he also feared the prospect of being taken into custody by immigration authorities at any time.

In August, a 30-year-old Afghan asylum seeker killed himself in Osaka, shortly after he learned that his wife and children in Afghanistan were killed in an American air raid. He reportedly had hoped to bring his family to Japan.

Lawyers and supporters of Afghan asylum seekers said the man would probably have been able to bring his family here earlier if the government had promptly recognized him as a refugee.

“Is Japan really a democracy?” asked Kazankiran Ahmet, a Turkish Kurd, unable to hide his frustration with the government. “I have been waiting, waiting and waiting, but I cannot be patient any more.”

The Tokyo District Court in March nullified the Justice Ministry’s earlier rejection of Ahmet’s application for refugee status, effectively acknowledging him as a refugee. The ministry, however, appealed the case to a higher court.

More than seven years have now passed since he filed the application with the ministry in 1996. The ministry turned down the application in 1998, and two years later rejected his complaint filed against the decision.

Ahmet said he has suffered chronic headaches since being involved in a traffic accident last year. His 18-year-old son now supports the family, who live in Saitama Prefecture, by working as a tiler even though he does not have a work visa.

He speaks fluent Japanese despite having been in Japan less than two years.

“I want to go to school or take some night classes,” he said. “But I have to support my family.”

In a message to a Japan Federation of Bar Associations symposium on Nov. 16, Sadako Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, criticized the nation’s refugee policy. She buttressed her remarks by pointing out that while Japan has accepted fewer than 300 refugees under the U.N. convention (not including settlers from Indochina) over the past two decades, 100,000 foreigners annually are granted visas here as “entertainers.”

“The fact poses a serious question; Has the nation truly understood and embodied the spirit and value supporting the international convention on refugees?” Ogata asked.

Mounting criticism has prompted the government to start reviewing its refugee policy, including improvement of the recognition process, the legal status of asylum seekers whose applications are being processed, and support for recognized refugees.

Remarks by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the Diet in May, however, appear to represent the government’s reluctance to accept asylum seekers.

Noting that it is difficult to “draw a line between refugees and suspicious persons,” Koizumi said, “If we say Japan will accept (more) refugees, it would bring with it a new domestic problem.”

An advisory panel to Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama earlier this month compiled a report on measures to improve the refugee-recognition process, but the same report begins by stressing that the system must be protected from abuse by illegal foreign workers and terrorists.

A Diet member who once served as parliamentary vice justice minister said, “I feel the prime concern of the government is how to protect Japan’s domestic security, ethnicity and culture.”

Experts point out that the fundamental problem with the nation’s refugee policy is that refugee-protection is handled by the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, whose main task is to prevent foreigners from entering the country illegally.

At the bar federation symposium, New Komeito’s Toyama said it is “unnatural from any perspective that refugee-recognition and immigration controls are governed by the same law.”

The bar federation proposed to the ministry in October that an independent governmental institution be created to process applications from asylum seekers.

But an interim report by the Justice Ministry panel fails to touch on this idea.

Ogata said in her message to the symposium that Japan’s refugee system is not unrelated to the Japanese people’s sense of value and prejudice against foreigners.

“We have to abandon insularism and prejudice and discrimination against foreigners, and consider issues of the outside world as our own problems,” she said.

Osamu Arakaki, an associate law professor at Shigakukan University and a former associate legal officer at the UNHCR in New Zealand, said Japan should also think of the refugee issue from a broader perspective.

“It is a matter of how we design this country for the future,” he said.

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