In Japan, Kurdish asylum seekers remain in legal limbo

A street corner in the Japanese city of Warabi, which some locals have dubbed ‘Warabistan’. (Credit: Urawa Zero/Flickr)

Japan’s deep reluctance to take in asylum seekers has essentially trapped Kurds and other refugees in a state of legal limbo.

According to a recent story by the New York Times, more than 1,300 ethnic Kurds are settled in cities around Tokyo, and nearly all of them are asylum seekers on “provisional release” – in other words, free from detention but officially barred from working while their asylum applications are considered.

The government has issued many of them temporary permits, which allows them to stay for years. But Japan, a country known for its ethnic homogeneity, has never before granted refugee status to a Turkish Kurd.

“Japan’s deep reluctance to take in migrant workers is now clashing with the reality of a shrinking population and the nation’s worst labor shortage in more than two decades,” according to a Reuters special report, in which reporters interviewed more than 30 Kurds on provisional release who are working illegally on private sector projects.

Faced with an aging working population, Japanese companies have started paying these refugees under the table to work on sewers, roads and other projects. Immigration advocates are also pushing to allow more Kurds and other asylum seekers to be granted legal status in order to jump start the economy.

The problem is that Japanese politicians are still hesitant to open the doors to immigrants.

There is “an allergy towards the word ‘immigration’” in Japan, said Masahiko Shibayama, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s adviser, last week. “People are worried about public security,” he added. “They worry that foreign workers would eat up Japanese jobs.”

At the end of 2015, the U.K.’s Independent reported, Japan had 13,831 asylum applications under review – the largest number in the history of a nation where migrants make up less than 2 percent of the population. Last year, the government granted asylum to just 27 of them. But considering Japan’s relative wealth, human rights group Oxfam recently determined the country’s “fair share” of the world’s refugees would be closer to 48,000.

Of course, as in any refugee program, there is the question of applicants’ eligibility. Yasuhiro Hishida, assistant to the director of Japan’s Refugee Status Recognition Office, told the New York Times that officials have suspected widespread abuse of the refugee process, and most applicants from countries such as Nepal or Sri Lanka are economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing persecution.

But in the case of the Turkish Kurds, advocates say the ‘ineligibility argument’ does not apply. Kurds have been migrating to Japan since the Turkish government battled an insurgency by Kurdish militants (the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK) in the early 1990s. Japan is simply an easy destination, since Turkish citizens can travel there without a visa.

As years pass, more family members and friends have joined their loved ones in the Japanese cities of Kawaguchi and Warabi, which locals have dubbed ‘Warabistan,’ according to the Independent. But without refugee status, none of these refugees can legally work.

Still, the legal barrier hasn’t stopped Kurds in Japan from doing what they can to survive. Many Kurds have temporary permits that allow them to work but need to be renewed every six months. The rest find jobs that are off-the-books, even though it puts them at risk of being detained or deported.

For now, many of the 1,300-some Kurds on provisional release in Japan have lived there for years without legal status or even national health insurance.

“We don’t have an identification card or a health insurance card. Just a provisional release,” said Yucel Gulcan, a Kurdish asylum seeker, in an interview with Reuters at a Kurdish gathering in northern Tokyo. “There are also many children on provisional release. It’s tough for them, too, because during winter, you are more prone to all sorts of sicknesses. We are really suffering.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com