Road to nowhere: refugees ‘banned’ from working, build Japan’s highways with no guarantee of a future there
Mazlum Balibay paves Japan’s roads. He’s also dug sewers and laid water pipes – all for a country that doesn’t want him.
The 24-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker is on provisional release from immigration detention, which means he is barred from working while authorities consider his application and could be detained again at any time.
But the ban hasn’t stopped Balibay from providing the muscle on a slew of public works projects funded by a government that refers to people like him as “undesirable”.
“Japan bans us from working, but everyone knows that without foreigners this country’s in trouble,” said Balibay. “There aren’t enough workers and young Japanese can’t do these jobs. The government knows that better than anyone.”
Japan’s deep reluctance to take in migrant workers is now clashing with the reality of a shrinking population and the nation’s worst labour shortage in more than two decades.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters at the United Nations in September that Japan should address its demographic problems by putting women and the elderly to work before considering immigration.
“People are worried about public security. They worry that foreign workers would eat up Japanese jobs,” said Masahiko Shibayama, lawmaker and special adviser to Abe.
But the combination of strict immigration laws and a shrinking work pool has spawned a black market in labour, especially in construction.
With work getting underway for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, demand for labour is set to jump further.
Balibay is part of a community of some 1,200 Kurds who live in Warabi and Kawaguchi, drab blue-collar suburbs north of Tokyo where gang crime is prevalent. The area has been dubbed “Warabistan” because of the high number of Kurdish immigrants. They inhabit a legal twilight zone, locked in lengthy struggles with an immigration system that recognised just 27 people as refugees last year.
As of December, Japan had 13,831 asylum applications under review. That is small by European standards, but it’s a record number for Japan. According to the latest available data, at the end of 2015 there were 4,701 people on provisional release in Japan.
Most Kurds on provisional release work without contracts, are paid in cash and can be laid off without warning.
Balibay is the main breadwinner in an extended family that includes his mother, two four brothers, a sister and her husband, and their infant son. He earns about US$2,500 a month – not enough to cover the family’s expenses.
Balibay was in his early teens when he first picked up a shovel on a building site.
He traces his family’s decision to leave Turkey to the arrest of his father, Mustafa in 1999 on charges of aiding members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
“When I was seven, soldiers tortured my father before my eyes,” Mazlum told a refugee adjudicator last March, according to interview transcripts. “I still dream about it.”
That experience ultimately led his family to seek refuge in Japan.
A Japanese psychiatrist diagnosed Mustafa Balibay in 2008 with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression caused by torture, according to a medical opinion submitted as part of Mustafa’s asylum application. On December 27, Mustafa went to a park near his home, tied a rope around his neck and hanged himself from a tree.
The family’s asylum claims have all been rejected, and their time in Japan has been peppered with legal battles against deportation orders and detention. According to Japanese law, asylum seekers can’t be deported while their claims are pending.
Immigration activists say Japan has never granted refugee status to a Turkish Kurd. Government officials would not say if any of the 3,463 Turkish nationals who have applied for asylum since 2008 had been granted refugee status.
People on provisional release cannot legally rent apartments, open bank accounts or sign up for mobile phone contracts in their names. They navigate this phantom status by borrowing the names and personal details of relatives and friends with residency permits.
They also need official permission to leave their prefecture. Japanese authorities granted that approval when they needed the Kurds’ help after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s northeast on March 11, 2011. A group of Kurdish men, some on provisional release, who volunteered to help with disaster relief were given official clearance to make the journey to the worst-hit areas.
The volunteers, who lived in tents, cleared rubble from roads and rice fields, and cleaned up damaged homes.
“I didn’t go there to get anything,” said Mahmut Colak, a Kurdish asylum seeker on provisional release. “I just felt sorry for the people ... I knew immigration wouldn’t give me a visa.”
Nearly a decade after arriving in Japan, Balibay has little hope he will ever be recognised as a refugee by his adopted country. After 10-hour days on construction sites, he escapes into a world far away, spending his nights watching YouTube videos of young Kurdish men like himself fighting Islamic State in Syria.
“I can’t think about tomorrow,” he says.