Two Kurdish families are staging a sit-in outside the United Nations University in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward over the Justice Ministry’s rejection of their applications for refugee status.

The 12 protesters, including a 2-year-old boy born in Japan, have been at the main entrance of the building since Tuesday. They hope to push the Tokyo office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to increase pressure on Japan to improve its rigid refugee policy and treatment of asylum-seekers, which they say is harsh.

They have been seeking refugee status since the mid-1990s, when family members began arriving from Turkey. Both families are seeking court orders to allow them to stay.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been hunger-strikes and other forms of protest both in and outside immigration facilities across Japan, which accepted only 10 applicants last year and rejected nearly 300.

It is the first time that families with small children have staged this type of protest.

“The Japanese government has never accepted a single Kurdish Turk as a refugee in deference for its diplomatic ties with Turkey, and it is only UNHCR that we can count on as the last resort,” said Ahmet Kazankiran, 48, father of one of the families.

The Justice Ministry said Japan has turned down applications for asylum filed by 260 Turkish nationals over the past three years, most of them believed to be ethnic Kurds.

“We will stay here until the United Nations take effective steps to pressure the Japanese government to do something for us,” Kazankiran said, adding that the families will stage a hunger strike if there is no response from the UNHCR or the government.

He said his family is about to be evicted from its apartment in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, as they have been unable to pay their rent and utility bills for the last three months.

The two families use a nearby bathroom, but no one has taken a shower since Tuesday. They sleep on blankets brought from their apartment and buy meals at a nearby convenience store.

“Still, this is not much worse than our life in Japan, which was marked by the lack of money and future prospects due to the lack of a visa,” said Kazankiran’s 15-year-old daughter, who skipped her high school classes to join the protest.

UNHCR officials said they have discussed the families’ situation with the government, but it is up to Japan to decide their fate.

Erdal Dogan, 30, father of the other family, said he decided to join the sit-in after hearing earlier this month from his brother in Turkey that Japanese immigration officials had searched their family home in cooperation with Turkish police. The raid forced his relatives to flee.

UNHCR officials said that such action, which could endanger the lives of family members still living in Turkey and of the two families if they are forced to return, is a violation of universally accepted rules on the treatment of refugees.

A senior official of the Justice Ministry’s Refugee Recognition Office declined to comment on the allegation, but said the ministry sends its investigators overseas to obtain information on refugee applicants, often from the governments in the countries of origin.

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