RPN 19 published May 1995

10. The Wall by Saul Takahashi

I walk into the office. The files are full of people's lives.

As soon as I get in the phone rings. It is Wang. Wang is a Chinese who was involved in the pro-democracy movement. He was refused asylum in Japan and is now in the detention centre. All he does every day is wait for them to send him back. His lawyer took his case to the courts but lost. The courts have never overturned a government asylum decision. In the office, we call the courts `the wall'.

Wang is crying. He is pleading for me to help him. He says he can't go back, that they'll kill him. But it is over for him. There is no hope. All legal venues have been taken. All possibilities pursued. There is nothing we can do. I tell him that. `I'm sorry. There's just nothing we can do.'

I hang up the phone and it rings again. It is an emergency. A freighter full of Chinese has been intercepted by the coast guard in Japanese waters. So many of these ships lately. The government has announced that they will deal with the Chinese in the same way as they always do. They will not be allowed to land. They will be kept on the ship until the Chinese government agrees to take them back. No-one from the outside will be allowed access. The Chinese will be given no information on the Japanese asylum procedures and no chance to apply for asylum. After all, they're just `illegal entrants'.

The press people call us one after the other. They want to know our position. I write a statement and fax it to the press. I write a letter to the government requesting that we be given access to the Chinese. I know it is futile but I have to do it.

I have an appointment. His name is Mohammed, a Nuba from Sudan. The Nuba are being exterminated by the government. He has been arrested by the army and tortured. He was whipped on the head with barbed wire and left out in the rain. He shows me the scar. He does not know what has happened to his family. He has written to them a hundred times but never received an answer. They are probably dead.

I explain the situation to him. It is all routine. I tell him that it is practically impossible to get asylum in Japan. I tell him that it will take years and during this time he will not get a work permit or any aid at all. I tell him that after they turn him down, he may be detained and deported. Mohammed is silent for a minute. Then he says that he must try. He has no choice. He can't go home. He has no place to go.

I give him the number of a lawyer and I promise I'll do what I can to help. Another file, another file.

I get a call. He says his name is Ahmed and is Somali. He says he just went to the immigration office. He saw the people in the refugee division and told them that he needed asylum, that he couldn't go back to his country, He asked them for help. They just kicked him out. No explanation, nothing. They didn't even give him the form to apply. He is confused and angry. I am not. It happens all the time. I can't afford to become angry anymore. I listen to his claim and ask him to come over tomorrow. I promise I'll go with him and make sure his application is registered. The officers at the immigrations don't fool around if we're there.

How many people has this happened to? How many people have I gone to Immigrations with? How many people never find my number and never get the chance to call for help? How many people?

[Note: Amnesty International has described the Japanese determination procedures as `gravely inadequate' and `far below international standards'. The organisation has published two reports: Japan: Inadequate Protection for Refugees and Asylum Seekers and Japan: Asylum Seekers Still at Risk in March 1993 and January 1994 respectively. The reports describe in detail the many procedural shortcomings and how individuals considered by Amnesty International and even the UNHCR to be at risk of human rights violations are routinely refused protection.]

Saul Takahashi is a case officer and lobbyist with Amnesty International in Japan, currently undertaking a year's study on the RSP's Foundation Course.

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October 1996