• Kyodo

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For more than 15 years, a Kurdish man in his 50s who fled persecution in Turkey has been living in Japan. Since he is prohibited from working in the country, he has no income and must rely on his wife, who is also a foreign national and works at a factory to support him and their child.

Amid the pandemic, her work hours have been cut and the family has been forced to borrow money to pay rent.

“I want to be recognized as a refugee so I will be able to work, get national health coverage and go to the hospital,” the man said in fluent Japanese, during a consultation event for Kurds in November in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

The man is one of many Kurds in Japan that live in the city, struggling to make ends meet. Most have applied for refugee status and been granted provisional release from detention on condition that they do not work.

A recent survey by a civic group has shown that many of them can’t afford medical care because family members and friends in the community who had been aiding them have lost their jobs or are suffering from reduced incomes due to the pandemic, and can no longer provide support.

Recognizing this as a serious problem, municipal authorities have started lobbying the central government to take action.

Around 1,500 Kurds are currently believed to be residing in the city. According to the civic groups that organized the November event, among 123 people who came to seek help, 101 were applicants for refugee status and 44 were on provisional release.

In questionnaires they filled out, 54 people were unable to pay either their rent or their medical bills and 33 said they had not been able to eat enough food.

A Kurdish woman in her 50s (front left) seeks welfare benefits at the municipal office in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, in November with Takanori Fujita (rear left), a member of a civic group tackling poverty. | KYODO
A Kurdish woman in her 50s (front left) seeks welfare benefits at the municipal office in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, in November with Takanori Fujita (rear left), a member of a civic group tackling poverty. | KYODO

“In most cases, their family members lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The amount of cash they have with them is about ¥2,000,” said Takanori Fujita, a member of a nongovernmental group tackling poverty that hosted the event.

After the event, Fujita accompanied a Kurdish woman in her 50s to the Kawaguchi municipal office to help her apply for welfare. The woman’s eldest daughter, now in her 20s, fell from the stairs at their former home in Turkey while fleeing military police. Since the daughter’s fall she has suffered from a mental disability, and requires nursing care.

Her mother has been granted residential status for a category among “special activities,” which prohibits her from working. Her husband had initially been allowed to work, but he was detained when his application for refugee status was turned down. He was granted provisional release in May due to the pandemic but is still prohibited from working.

Two weeks later, authorities in Kawaguchi denied the woman’s request for welfare support. The health ministry states that foreign residents need to hold either permanent residency, permanent residency with special status or refugee status in order to be entitled to welfare.

“Welfare is a government program. I understand the severe situation, but the city can’t bend the rule,” a Kawaguchi official said.

In December, Kawaguchi Mayor Nobuo Okunoki submitted a petition to Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, asking the government to allow individuals granted provisional release to work.

Okunoki said their unstable livelihood was being caused by the government’s immigration system, and that if they are in poverty the government should be responsible for their welfare.

He later told reporters that some who had been hospitalized even slipped out of the hospital because they were unable to pay the medical bills.

“If they were allowed to work, the problems would be solved,” he said, adding that many are forced to work illegally to survive.

Atsushi Kondo, a professor well versed on immigration policies at Meijo University in Nagoya, said Japan may be violating a U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that states all people must be treated with dignity and humanity. He urged the government to take action.

“It’s like putting them in a homelessness situation,” Kondo said, “without giving them minimum access to welfare or allowing them to work.”

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