Sunday April 11th was the 6th protest in front of the Japanese Embassy on behalf of Jamal Saberi over the course of a single month. It was another beautiful day, and we were able to discuss Saberi’s situation with several concerned members of the community who were interested in why we were protesting. Once again, the local motor vehicle traffic slowed to a crawl to look at our demonstration.
Our activities consisted of putting up our signs in front of the Embassy, including the Saberi Solidarity Cherry Tree; sharing a platter of Iranian sweets with the community; doing some chants against Japan’s treatment of Jamal Saberi and in support of humane treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers; and presenting a critique of Japan’s anti-human refugee policy to the neighborhood.
While chanting, we learned how convenient it is that Turkey’s embassy is across street from the Japanese embassy. We noticed a small group of 5-10 men in suits had congregated on the sidewalk across the street, and guessed that there was something going on at the Turkish Embassy. It turned out to be a rather large “something” – in moments, a huge convoy of black Escalades with tinted-down windows pulled up to the curb on the other side of the street. Vast quantities of guys in suits spilled out of the vehicles and onto the sidewalks. They immedately noticed our signs and we took good opportunity to use specific chants on refugee rights, especially the ones that referenced Turkey. We even modified one of chants on the fly to include Turkey – and STILL made it rhyme!
No forced return!
These are the rights of a refugee.
These are the rights of Saberi,
and 5000 refugees in Turkey!
Zendaniyeh siasi! Political prisoners must be free!
In Japan, Iran or Turkey,
We won’t leave til they’re all free!
The people at the Turkish embassy were visibly interested – and seemed a little startled – once we started including Turkey in our chants that demanded asylum, protection, and no forced return for refugees. We wanted them to know (and we said explicitly) that we were going to watch Turkey’s behavior regarding refugees too. A couple of the guys took photos of our demo and some pulled out their phones while watching us and made calls, studying us the whole time. So… we have essentially given Turkey fair warning that the world is watching, and their reprehensible practices regarding refugees will not be tolerated in silence.
We also took some time to critique Japan’s anti-human policy on refugees. This week, we used a 2002 Japanese newspaper article that discussed Japan’s treatment of Afghan refugees at that time, and we compared that with the treatment that Jamal and others are receiving now. The article, by Isozaki Yumi of Mianichi Shimbun, was entitled “Questioning Japan’s ‘Closed Country’ Policy on Refugees.” The key observation made by Yumi is that Japan’s refugee policy is based on the principle that “we may send money out, but we will not let people in.” As an example supporting this observation, Yumi says:
At an international conference on aid for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, Japan made appeals for great outlays of funds, while at home it continued to detain Afghans who had come to Japan seeking protection. Furthermore, due to American demands (as one might expect), a special category was established for refugees from Indochina and ten thousand people were admitted [to Japan]. However, asylum seekers of different nationalities have been strenuously excluded. This is illustrated by the case of Chinese democracy activists at the time of the Tiananmen incident. Out of consideration for bilateral relations, they were not recognized as refugees but merely given special permission to stay in Japan. The use of this approach, which leaves asylum seekers in a “gray zone”, continues to this day.
Several things are important to note here: between 1982 and 2004, Japan received about 3,500 applications for asylum. Less than 10 percent of those applications were granted – around 320 cases. [Compare with Australia (93% in the year 2000), Canada (89%), the United States (67%) and Switzerland (57%) also had high percentages.] During the course of two decades, Japan admitted only about 300 asylum seekers as refugees, and yet when the United States asked Japan to admit 10,000 Indochinese refugees (note that this is 30 years after the Vietnam War ended), Japan easily accommodated the request and admitted them.
The other thing to note in this passage is Japan’s practice of leaving asylum seekers in a “gray zone.” As in the case of Jamal, where he resided in Japan for 20 years but was vulnerable to deportation because Japan refused to formally recognize him as a refugee, Japan has a long history of keeping asylum-seekers in such a state of limbo, without legal status and thus vulnerable to the whims of the government.
More evidence of Japan’s utter inhumanity towards asylum seekers is presented here:
Around the beginning of 2001, Taliban persecution against Hazara intensified dramatically, yet the Japanese government severely restricted the issuance of visas and travel documents to Afghans: from 584 in 2000, the number dropped to 24 in the first ten months of 2001.
Thus we see that in the case of Afghan refugees, as persecution of the minority Hazara group intensified and thus demand for refuge grew, Japan’s willingness to accept any kind of visitor from Afghanistan decreased. Although the newspaper article does not interpret this information in the same way, I argued that, taken together with Japan’s willingness to deport Jamal Saberi within two weeks of Ali Larijani’s visit to Tokyo, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Japan uses its immigration policies to cooperate with some of the worst human rights abusers extant: the Taliban and the Islamic regime.
Finally, the Yumi article notes that in the case of Afghan refugees in the early 2000s,
The Ministry of Justice justifies its denials of refugee status with statements such as “no one would be persecuted simply for being Hazara”, and “their testimonies are not credible.”
The very same dishonest justifications are being given by Japan’s Ministry of Justice in the case of Jamal, which asserts that Jamal’s 20 years of vocal activism against the Islamic regime is not enough to make him a target of the regime should he be returned to Iran. This is an outrageous assertion, given that the Islamic regime has handed down a death sentence to a 20-year-old boy, Mohammad-Amin Valian, for the “crime” of shouting “Down with the Islamic Republic” and throwing a stone on one day. This regime needs no excuses to kill and Japan knows that very well. For Japan to assert that Jamal, who has fought vocally against the Islamic regime for as many years as Mohammad-Amin Valian has been alive, would get any more lenient a sentence than death is ludicrous. Japan knows it, and the rest of the world knows it too.
Thus we were able to show that, in the face of Japan’s reprehensible posture against asylum-seekers, Jamal’s situation is no different than that of hundreds of Afghans who sought refuge in Japan as illustrated by Yumi’s article. Nor is Jamal’s situation different from the hundreds of asylum seekers that Japan is currently keeping imprisoned in very poor conditions while awaiting deportation.
We closed with a final quote from Yumi:
The system for recognizing refugee status is a human safety net that crosses national boundaries. It represents a transformation of law, of systems and of consciousness in order to save lives that must be saved. When Japan is able to put that transformation into practice, this will surely mark the turning-point from being a “closed country” for refugees to being a “human rights superpower”.
We hope that Japan chooses to make that transformation quickly, for the sake of Saberi, and for the sake of however many other asylum-seekers currently share Jamal’s fate.
1) Our next protest in front of the Japanese Embassy (2520 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC) will be staged on Sunday May 9, 2010, which is the next Global Day of Action on behalf of Jamal and by extension all asylum-seekers who are refused refuge.
2) The Free Jamal! campaign has issued a call for financial support to help sustain the ongoing fight for Jamal’s life. Please consider donating.
~ Maria Rohaly