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February 12, 2000
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Asylum seekers find no refuge in Japan
By Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO - A law that criminalizes overstaying in Japan is set to be implemented this month, even as lawyers and human rights activists try to spotlight the country's poor record on accepting refugees.

The law, which penalizes illegal aliens with a prison term of up to three years, appears to be aimed primarily at illegal workers. But it may affect applicants for refugee status as well - people who, lawyers and activists say, have a very hard time getting Tokyo's approval to stay.

''The shameful situation is that it is almost impossible for a foreigner to gain refugee status in Japan,'' says lawyer Satoshi Murata, who is currently appearing for a Burmese man who has applied for special permission to stay in Japan citing political persecution. ''This is because of a system that rejects a humanitarian approach to accepting political refugees.''

Last year, Japan accepted a total of 11 refugees, down from 16 in 1998. Some 200 applications for refugee status are received annually by the government. A justice ministry official says applicants usually wait a year for the decision on their cases. But government officials say there is no grand plan against asylum seekers.

An official of the refugee application department at the Justice Ministry told IPS that the problem lies in the fact that ''most foreigners applying for refugee status arrive on fake passports or as stowaways on ships''. ''We do not have a basic policy that stipulates clear conditions for recognizing refugees. The status is granted after careful consideration of each individual case,'' he says.

Last year, Japan ratified the UN Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which stipulates that signatories should not send a person to a country where the individual may be subjected to persecution. But Tokyo apparently remains reluctant to accept foreigners and continues to reject applications for asylum without explanations to the public.

Comments Murata: ''I suspect Japan does not want foreigners, believing that helping them is not going to benefit the country. Fundamentally the Japanese government views foreigners suspiciously because they are considered to act and think differently from the Japanese and therefore will be a cause for social disruption. This viewpoint supports a policy that makes it very difficult for foreigners to gain residence in Japan.''

In December, a group of 34 Kurds facing deportation visited the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in an attempt to publicize their desperate situation. They told reporters that their applications for refugee status, filed in 1996, had been turned down despite their pleas that they face prison sentences in Turkey.

A Kurdish separatist group has been fighting the Turkish government for the past 15 years. Last year, Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured by Turkish authorities, put on trial and then sentenced to death by a Turkish court. The sentence is on hold.

Lawyer Takeshi Ohashi, a supporter of the Kurdish refugees in Japan, said that when he visited Turkey last September, he found two Kurds who had been deported from Japan behind bars. He said Tokyo is ''acting against the international convention on refugees'' in continuing to turn down the refugee applications of people like the Kurds.

One of Ohashi's clients, an Iranian, was deported three months ago while on a hunger strike that he staged at a detention center. The Iranian, who was also seeking refugee status, was apparently too weak to even walk when authorities decided to load him on a plane. According to Ohashi, the Iranian's request to meet with officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had been refused by authorities, prompting his hunger strike.

Another case that caused a stir was the deportation in August of an Eritrean-Ethiopian who was seeking refugee status. The applicant had several severe burn scars on his body that he said were the results of torture in Ethiopia. But that failed to impress officials and he was forcibly flown to Bangkok, where he refused to continue his trip home. The would-be refugee has since said he was anesthetized when Japanese authorities made him board the plane to Bangkok. The Justice Ministry has denied the allegation, but his lawyer, Shogo Watanabe, announced recently that they are planning to file a lawsuit this month against the government.

Lawyers themselves admit that one of the problems of asylum seekers in Japan is the absence of clear-cut rules to define a refugee. Ohashi says Japanese immigration laws also ''do not spell clear rules on how to get refugee status''.

But the justice ministry official interviewed by IPS also pointed out that the government had granted special permission for an Iranian family, part of a group that had visited the Immigration Authority in September, to stay in Japan. In a statement, the ministry said the family was given permission in view of the fact that the 16-year-old son had been enrolled at a Japanese high school for the past nine years and could have faced difficulties if the family was sent back to Iran.

However the ministry rejected a similiar application by a Burmese family, and is detaining the 43-year-old father until the family is deported. The ministry said it rejected the y's application because the 2-year-old daughter is young enough to adapt to life back in Burma.

Meanwhile, foreigners who have been overstaying in Japan have been flocking to immigration offices in an effort to get their papers in order before the new law criminalizing illegal status comes into effect on February 18. The Justice Ministry estimates that there are now some 270,000 foreign workers who have overstayed their visas.

In the past decade, Japan has seen an influx of illegal entrants - mostly from neighboring Asian countries such as China - seeking jobs that most Japanese do not want because of long working hours and dangerous conditions.

(Inter Press Service)

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