On a chilly afternoon in mid-January, more than 30 Kurdish asylum-seekers gathered in front of United Nations University in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward to call for U.N. action on Turkey’s continued all-out attacks on Kurds in the northern Syrian town of Afrin.
Addressing bystanders through a megaphone was Eyyup Kurt, a 30-year-old Kurdish journalist who fled from Turkey to Japan in 2015 fearing persecution over his reports on corruption scandals involving family members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I could have been arrested at any moment, so I fled to Japan because this country allows entry to Turkish passport-holders without visas,” Kurt said. To go to Canada, his first choice, he would have needed a visa.
But three years have passed since Kurt first applied for refugee status in Japan, and he is still waiting for an answer while working for a transnational consulting company. He is allowed to work full time thanks to a “designated activities” visa that requires renewals every six months.
Kurt said he is losing hope that he will ever be granted official refugee status, given that no Kurds with Turkish passports have ever been granted such status in Japan. Kurt is one of many Kurdish asylum-seekers of Turkish origin whose quest for refugee status has been complicated not only by what critics see as Japan’s extremely stringent definition of refugees but also by the warm political relations between Japan and Turkey.
Kurt’s problems with Turkish officialdom began in March 2013 when, while working for Sabah, one of Turkey’s biggest daily newspapers, he reported on a series of government scandals involving a prominent Turkish charity. Erdogan’s son, Bilal, was one of the charity’s board members.
Kurt said he received threatening calls from Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozag, who at that time was Turkey’s justice minister. He was then fired by the newspaper for causing turmoil in the government and hit with accusations of deceiving the public with “fake news.”
At that point, Kurt said, he joined the ranks of more than 100 Turkey-based journalists whose press accreditation had been revoked because of their reporting. Many have reportedly fled to neighboring countries to avoid imprisonment.
Kurt now lives in the city of Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, which is home to more than 1,500 Kurds and is sometimes referred to as “Warabistan” by local residents. According to the Japan Kurdish Cultural Association, which is operated by Kurds and hosts cultural exchange events in Warabi, most of the residents are asylum-seekers who, like Kurt, fled the southern part of Turkey along the borders with Syria due to fears of government persecution. Some have filed for refugee status multiple times over a long period, while others are currently appealing to Japanese courts for revocations of Justice Ministry denials of refugee status.
According to Shogo Watanabe, who leads the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees (JLNR), there has been only one case in which a court overturned the state’s decision to reject the refugee application of a Kurdish man with Turkish citizenship. That decision was handed down by the Nagoya High Court in 2006.
“Everyone thought he would be the first Kurd with a Turkish passport to be granted refugee status,” Watanabe said. The Justice Ministry, however, did not take the court ruling into consideration when he re-filed for refugee status, which never came.
According to data compiled by the JLNR from UNHCR and the Justice Ministry, of the 6,025 Turkish nationals who applied for refugee status from 2006 to 2017, none was granted asylum, although 36 were issued “special resident” permits by the ministry on humanitarian grounds. People given special resident permits, while not receiving the same benefits as refugees, are able to legally stay in Japan.
Takeshi Ohashi, secretary-general of a group of lawyers supporting Kurdish asylum-seekers, laments that the ministry has been making light of the reality faced by Kurds in Turkey.
“The Justice Ministry says that the human rights of Kurds have improved in Turkey, or that the Turkish government is adequately addressing the issue, so there is no risk of persecution,” said Ohashi. “I’ve found their statements to be quite peculiar when compared to those given in other countries where refugee status has been granted to Turkish Kurds.”
Ohashi added that, in addition to Japan’s reluctance to accept refugees in general, the long-standing cordial relationship between Japan and Turkey has been an obstacle for Turkish Kurds to be accepted as refugees — as many support several ethnic Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey officially considers a terrorist front organization.
“Japan has been collaborating with Turkish security agencies in efforts to combat terrorism,” Ohashi said. “Thus, they are unable to decry Turkish actions performed under the name of ‘combating terrorism’ as human rights violations.”
Indeed, in 2006, when then-Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer made an official visit to Japan (accompanied by then-Prime Minister Erdogan), the president reportedly demanded that Japan close down the Japan-Kurdistan Friendship Association. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi responded by saying that Japan understands that there is no such country as Kurdistan, according to a report by Hurriyet — one of the largest mass circulation daily newspapers in Turkey.
Eri Ishikawa, a representative of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), said that no Turkish national has been granted refugee status because of Japan’s apparent interpretation of the meaning of “persecution.”
While there is no universally accepted definition, UNHCR refugee guidelines describe persecution as threats to life or freedom on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — as well as other serious violations of human rights.
According to Ishikawa, Japan, unlike other countries, limits the meaning only to oppression or threat to the freedom of their lives and bodies imposed by the government.
Justice Ministry official Yasuhiro Hishida offered a response to such criticism: “If there is oppression or threat to the freedom of life and body as a result of some sort of human rights violation, we would consider it persecution under the refugee convention.” Hishida added that, while Japan’s judiciary considers what is written in the UNHCR guidelines to be “not legally binding,” the Justice Ministry does take it into account.
“I would like to know if there is any serious human rights violation that does not have a threat to the freedom of life and body,” said Hishida.
There has also been criticism that the Justice Ministry does not always specify which part of a refugee applicant’s statement was deemed not credible when citing “lack of credibility” as the official reason for declining the applicant’s request.
However, Hishida said that, while some documents lacked detailed reasoning five years ago, officials have since been more transparent, specifying which part of an applicant’s statement was judged not credible enough.
“From the refugee supporters’ point of view, our explanation might seem insufficient,” said Hishida. “However, we have been trying our best to clarify the reasons (for our rejections).”
According to lawyer Sosuke Seki, a member of the Tokyo Bar Association Committee on Protection of Foreigners’ Human Rights, Japan also overlooks the refugee convention by placing a heavy burden of proof on applicants.
According to UNHCR guidelines, given that in most cases asylum-seekers are forced to flee, fearing for their lives, with no time to gather hard evidence, applicants whose accounts appear credible are not required to prove all the facts in making their case for refugee status, Seki said.
He added that judges in Japan treat applicants like plaintiffs, in that they lose if they fail to substantiate their claims. “Ultimately,” he said, “the failure of the refugee application system falls on the court judges who seldom consider that putting the burden of proof on applicants is wrong.”
Ishikawa said that the word “refugee” does not solely refer to a person persecuted in the past, but must also include those who face potential future persecution. The UNHCR stated in its 1988 Note on Burden and Standard of Proof in Refugee Claims that “the determination of refugee status does not purport to identify refugees as a matter of certainty, but as a matter of likelihood.”
Considering the situation, Kurt said he is not optimistic regarding his plea for political asylum, and he is now pinning his last hopes on being given a special resident permit issued on humanitarian grounds. Unlike refugee status, such a permit would not qualify him for a “refugee passport” that would allow travel outside Japan. He would also miss out on language and job-hunting support from the government.
“I can’t go back to Turkey,” Kurt said. “But at least it will allow me to stay in Japan.”