At the end of June, a Nigerian man in his 40s died at an immigration detention center in Nagasaki. According to a support group, the man had been on a hunger strike to protest his lengthy confinement, which had continued for more than three years. The detention center has yet to reveal the cause of his death.
Although some media outlets reported the man’s death, most didn’t go into detail. When the public hears of foreign nationals being detained, they most likely imagine people caught working without permits, since that is the context in which foreign nationals have been discussed lately. According to a Reuters report published in the Asahi Shimbun, of the approximately 1,500 foreign detainees who were being held as of June 2018, 604 were asylum-seekers whose situation is different from that of visa overstayers and so-called illegal workers.
Although there was an increase in the number of asylum applicants Japan accepted in 2018, the actual number — 42 — was still miniscule, since there were 10,493 applications. However, the number of applications was down for the first time in eight years. In January 2018, the Justice Ministry introduced a stricter process to screen out people who are applying for refugee status in order to gain employment. The ministry stressed that the 42 whose applications were approved had been admitted to Japan for humanitarian reasons, since it was determined that their lives would have been in danger had they been forced to return to their home countries.
The ministry is opaque about its screening process, and the public seems to have little knowledge of — and, perhaps, little interest in — these asylum-seekers, but two mainstream media outlets, NHK and the Mainichi Shimbun, have made a point of closely following at least one group: Kurds.
Kurds do not have a country of their own. A distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, they reside in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria, but it is mainly the Kurds from Turkey who are seeking asylum in Japan and who are being refused because, according to the Justice Ministry, they are not politically persecuted in Turkey. In 2002, the Turkish government officially implemented a policy to “accept” the Kurdish minority and allow them to speak their own language.
On June 22, NHK aired a documentary on its ETV channel about one Kurdish family it has been following. According to NHK, there are some 2,000 Kurdish people in Japan, more than half of whom live in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, thus making it one of the biggest concentrated refugee communities in the country. The Balibays first came to Japan 12 years ago and, except for one son who married a Japanese woman, all have only provisional release permits, which allow them to stay in Japan but not work. While these permits are granted for humanitarian reasons, their holders are prohibited from receiving public services. That means they are economically dependent on relatives with work permits or private aid groups.
The Balibays left Turkey after the patriarch, Mustafa, was detained and allegedly tortured by local police, who suspected him of being involved with a Kurdish independence group. The family applied for refugee status as soon as it arrived but the case has never been approved.
The lawyer representing them in immigration procedures told NHK that since there is no hard evidence that the father was tortured, there is no evidence of persecution. As he pointed out, however, there is almost never any evidence of torture in such cases. The Balibays have been ordered to return to Turkey, but since the family won’t leave for fear of arrest, it has been given the release permits, which must be renewed every two months in person.
The family is thus in a state of limbo. The family’s 24-year-old son, Velat, once spent more than two years in detention for traveling to Tokyo without special dispensation, a violation of his permit terms. He now suffers from depression, as does his youngest brother, who was born in Japan and frequently skips elementary school. Mustafa committed suicide in 2015.
Many detained refugees have no idea why they are being detained and for so long. Velat doesn’t even know why he was released. A Kawaguchi official told NHK that the local government can’t administer refugees because their status is so vague. If they worked, they could produce, pay taxes and receive public services. The head of the new Immigration Services Agency of Japan agrees that in most cases detention periods are too long and that, ideally, refused asylum-seekers should go back to their respective countries, but when asked by NHK why they “can’t leave,” all she could point to was “exceptional circumstances.”
In order to refute Kurdish refugees’ claims of Turkish persecution, the authorities have to replace it with a compelling reason why they uprooted and resettled in a foreign country that doesn’t appear to want them. The government concludes they are coming here to make money, but several Kurds in the documentary say they would return to Turkey in a minute if they knew they wouldn’t be arrested. In a post on his blog, freelance journalist Hideki Kashida, who specializes in issues the mass media ignores, quoted a Kurdish detainee as saying the same thing: Of course he would go back if it was safe to do so; the only reason he was in Japan is that it isn’t safe to go back.
The government position toward Kurdish refugees is particularly confusing in light of new immigration laws that allow more foreign workers. The Kurds are already here and many are fluent in Japanese. They are ready and willing to work. In a Mainichi Shimbun article published on June 19 to commemorate World Refugee Day, a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan when she was 6 years old recalled how an immigration officer questioned her desire to seek an education, saying it was a waste of time since she would never be able to work in Japan.
The woman wanted to study and, by doing so, make a future for herself. Now her hope is just to make if through her next provisional release hearing.