[lg policy] Kurdish refugees in Japan

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Aug 17 10:42:11 EDT 2016

Ethnic Kurds Find Haven, but No Home, in Insular Japan

By MOTOKO RICH <http://www.nytimes.com/by/motoko-rich>AUG. 16, 2016
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Mahircan Yucel is one of about 1,300 ethnic Kurds who have settled in
Kawaguchi, an industrial city north of Tokyo, and in the neighboring city
of Warabi. Their plight offers a stark illustration of Japan’s approach to
refugees. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

KAWAGUCHI, Japan — Mahircan Yucel moved to Japan
a dozen years ago as a teenager fleeing sectarian violence in Turkey
He learned Japanese, got married, had two children and grew to love his
adopted homeland. But Japan has refused to accept him and could force him
to leave.

“The truth is, I have lived in Japan for such a long time,” he said on a
recent evening in a small living room that doubles as his infant son’s
bedroom. “All I want to do is work and carry out a decent life.”

Mr. Yucel, 27, is one of about 1,300 ethnic Kurds who have settled in
Kawaguchi, an industrial city north of Tokyo, and in the neighboring city
of Warabi. They live in a perpetual limbo, seeking protection as refugees
in a country that is among the most reluctant in the world to give it.
A Japanese language lesson at a Kurdish cultural association. Credit Ko
Sasaki for The New York Times

Though the government has issued temporary permits allowing many to stay
for years, no Turkish Kurd has ever been granted refugee status in Japan,
which would allow them to settle here permanently. Their plight offers a
stark illustration of this insular nation’s approach to refugees as it
comes under pressure to admit more amid the world’s worst migration crisis
since World War II.

Japan values ethnic homogeneity and has long guarded fiercely against
outsiders. According to a United Nations report
migrants represent less than 2 percent of the population, compared with 14
percent in the United States. Because of Japan’s shrinking, aging
population, many have proposed allowing more immigration to jump-start its
stagnant economy. But the government and the public have resisted.

At the same time, growing numbers have sought asylum in Japan, and almost
all of them have been rejected or told to wait. More than 7,500 people
applied for refugee status in 2015, up 52 percent from a year earlier. The
government granted asylum to just 27 of them.

Oxfam, the human rights group, recently cited Japan in a report
<https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/poor-welcome-worlds-wealthy> criticizing
the world’s wealthiest countries for accepting so few refugees for
resettlement, particularly those from Syria. According to the group’s
analysis of each country’s relative wealth, Japan’s “fair share” would be
close to 48,000 refugees.
A magazine featuring photographs of Kurdish fighters who were killed in
June. Kurds first began arriving from Turkey and seeking asylum in Japan in
the early 1990s, when the Turkish government was fighting an armed
insurgency by Kurdish militants. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

In 2010, Japan began to accept refugees who had fled Myanmar to camps in
Thailand. But it has taken in only 24 families since then, according to the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This summer, the government also agreed to
host up to 150 Syrian refugees as foreign exchange students.
Continue reading the main story
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At the United Nations
General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the country
needed to focus on its economy before considering whether to accept more
refugees or immigrants.

Nearly 14,000 people in Japan are in some stage of an asylum process that
usually lasts more than three years and that some critics say is designed
to deter new migrants from applying. Asylum seekers may work while they
wait for an answer, but those denied refugee status can be given temporary
permits that prohibit them from working while giving them no living

Yasuhiro Hishida, assistant to the director of Japan’s Refugee Status
Recognition Office, said officials suspected widespread abuse of the
refugee process. Most applicants come from countries that are not currently
considered conflict zones, including Nepal, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, he said,
suggesting that they are economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing
Happy Kebab, one of a few Kurdish-owned kebab restaurants in Kawaguchi.
Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Immigrant advocates say the government exaggerates the number of unfounded
refugee claims. “In reality, there are so many people who are waiting and
are facing a life of danger,” said Shiho Tanaka, spokeswoman for the
Japanese Association for Refugees.

With the native Japanese population declining, she added, “there are
companies that want to hire them and need laborers.”

Mr. Yucel said he and his family had fled Turkey because they were afraid
the government would brand them as terrorists and imprison them. Now,
watching events in Turkey from afar, including a war between the government
and Kurdish militant
in the southeast and the recent failed military coup
Mr. Yucel said he could never go back.

“If you see my country, there is a lot of bullying and people being
killed,” he said, growing visibly agitated. “I can’t even speak anymore.”
Turkish Kurds drinking on a street in Warabi. Japan is an easy destination
for Kurds seeking asylum from Turkey because they do not need visas to
travel there. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Mr. Yucel married a Japanese-Brazilian woman with permanent residency, but
that does not allow him to work in Japan legally. The authorities detained
one of his elder brothers this spring after he overstayed a temporary
permit, and Mr. Yucel fears he could be next.

Kurds began arriving from Turkey and seeking asylum in Japan in the early
1990s, as the Turkish government battled an insurgency by Kurdish
militants. Japan was an easy destination because Turkish citizens do not
need visas to travel here. As family and friends followed, they settled
around Kawaguchi and Warabi. Local residents named the community Warabistan.

Over time, some married Japanese citizens, which conferred long-term visa
rights, and some opened their own businesses. There are a few Kurdish-owned
restaurants in Kawaguchi, and many of the immigrants work at Kurdish-owned
demolition and construction firms.

But most Kurds here, like Mr. Yucel, are stuck on temporary permits that
need to be renewed every six months. Those without permission to work
cobble together off-the-books jobs, which puts them at risk of being
detained for months or deported.
Mr. Yucel at home with his son. He and his family left Turkey because they
were afraid the government would brand them as terrorists and imprison them.
Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

“I want the Japanese government to understand that real refugees are in
trouble,” said Eyyup Kurt, 29, a Kurdish journalist who applied for asylum
18 months ago. He said he had been arrested five times in Turkey and had
been shot at by a member of the Islamic State while investigating a
training site.

The Japanese public has mixed feelings about refugees. Some say the country
has a moral responsibility to welcome those fleeing danger in their home
countries, while others fear the newcomers could bring increased crime or
take jobs from Japanese workers.

“You see what’s happening in Europe: terrorism, crimes, lots of social
unease,” said Emi Aoi, a founder of Yaezakura no Kai
<http://www.sakuranokai.org>, a group that opposes taking in more refugees
or immigrants. (Emi Aoi is the name she uses professionally, different from
her birth name, she said, because the group’s views are not “well

Kurds have worked hard to integrate. Many take Japanese language lessons at
the cultural association, which also runs neighborhood patrols to make sure
Kurds are not bothering their Japanese neighbors. This year, after an
earthquake struck Kumamoto on the southern island of Kyushu, a group
traveled south to help clear the rubble.
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Some Japanese remain wary. City officials in Kawaguchi said they received
complaints about late-night gatherings and garbage in Kurdish
neighborhoods. Young Kurdish men tend to congregate outside a convenience
store near the train station in Warabi, and merchants say they frighten
some customers.

“Sometimes I see that they get into fights, and the police have to come,”
said Hiroe Hokiyama, 21, a college junior. “It is a little bit scary.”

Others are more welcoming. Shori Nishizawa, 57, the owner of an appliance
store a few blocks from Happy Kebab, a Kurdish-owned restaurant here, said
he often watched young Kurdish mothers walking with their children on the
street in front of his store.

“Japan is such a peaceful country,” Mr. Nishizawa said. “We should not
think about countries, but about the world. We are all citizens of the
world, right?”


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