Born in Limbo
Japan forces a harsh choice on children of migrant families
Born in the country and fluent in the language, Gursewak Singh considers himself Japanese. The government doesn’t. But it sometimes offers children like him a chance to stay – if their parents agree to leave.
MATSUDO, Japan – Gursewak Singh composed his first letter to Japan’s justice minister when he was 10 years old. Almost seven years later, he is still writing. In all, he has written more than 50 letters.
He has yet to get a reply.
The letters, all written in Japanese, have become more eloquent as Gursewak has grown up. But the message is unchanged – a plea to the Japanese authorities to recognize him and his family as residents in a country where he and his younger twin siblings were born and his parents, natives of India, have lived since the 1990s.
“My family loves Japan,” Gursewak wrote to then-Justice Minister Keiko Chiba on March 6, 2010. “We really don’t want to go back to India. Please give us visas.”
In his most recent letter, composed in August to the immigration authorities, he wrote: “The Immigration Bureau tells us to go back to India. Why do the three of us have to go back to our parents’ country, even though we were born and raised in Japan?”
Gursewak’s parents, who are Sikhs, fled to Japan from India in the 1990s. For several years, they lived without visas under the radar of the authorities until they were put on a status known as “provisional release” in 2001. It means they can stay in Japan as long as their asylum application is under review.
But it also means they can’t work, they don’t have health insurance and they need permission to travel outside the prefecture where they live. They are also subject to unannounced inspections by immigration officers at their home and they face detention at any time. There are currently some 4,700 people with this status living in Japan.
Gursewak, who has never left Japan, has inherited his parents’ provisional release status and all the restrictions that go with it. That fate has exposed him and more than 500 other children who share his predicament to lives of perpetual uncertainty. They can go to government-run schools, where tuition is largely free, but university is out of reach for most because they and their parents aren’t allowed to work and so can’t afford the fees. These children, many of whom are asylum seekers, will soon face a stark choice between forced unemployment and working illegally.
“Since I was born I’ve only ever interacted with Japanese people,” said Gursewak, who is now 17, speaks the language with native fluency and considers himself Japanese. “I don’t get why Japan won’t accept me.”
The immigration authorities are unmoved. The fact that these children were born in Japan, or arrived at a young age, doesn’t afford them any special status, officials say. “They are under deportation orders, so they are illegal,” said Naoaki Torisu, a Justice Ministry official overseeing immigration issues. “They have no legal right to stay in Japan.”
Interviews with some two dozen children on provisional release from 11 countries, including Vietnam, Pakistan and Ghana, reveal stories that are similar to the one told by Gursewak. Their experiences highlight Japan’s deep reluctance to accept foreigners, even as the country’s population ages and its workforce shrinks. Earlier this year, Reuters exposed how asylum seekers on provisional release are working without permits to provide the muscle on government-funded road and infrastructure projects, even as Japan says they must leave.
While there were almost 14,000 asylum cases under review at the end of 2015, Japan accepted only 27 refugees last year. The year before that, the number was 11.
“Since I was born I’ve only ever interacted with Japanese people. I don’t get why Japan won’t accept me.”
The low acceptance rate stands in stark contrast to Europe, which has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees arrive from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Eritrea. In the first half of the year, European countries ruled on 495,000 asylum applications, approving more than 293,000, according to Eurostat, the statistics office of the European Union. In addition, European countries had more than 1.1 million more cases that they had yet to decide on at the end of June.
Belgium, with a population less than a tenth the size of Japan’s, decided on more than 13,000 asylum applications in the first half of the year. It had approved almost two-thirds by the end of June, of which 1,975 were minors. Germany, with a population two-thirds the size of Japan’s, approved 174,230 asylum requests out of 256,715 in the first six months of the year. That included 51,185 children.
At the same time, countries in Europe and elsewhere are growing colder on immigration – not least the United States, where Donald Trump this month won the presidency on a nativist platform. Trump is vowing to deport millions of people illegally residing in the country.
Chiba, the ex-justice minister who was in office when Gursewak wrote his first letter, says Japan’s immigration policy needs to be revamped.
“There should be a proper, wider system of granting residence permits,” even to those who are in Japan illegally, she told Reuters in an interview. “We could grant amnesty to everyone who is already in Japan and is living illegally, and work toward setting up a proper system of accepting newcomers.”
“I’d like to say to him, ‘I’m sorry.’ Japan hasn’t been able to set up a system that can properly respond to people like you, and made you suffer greatly as a result.”
Chiba’s is a rare voice of dissent. Across the Japanese political spectrum, there is broad support for keeping immigration barriers high. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the solution to Japan’s demographic problems was getting more women and the elderly into the workforce, not loosening the nation’s immigration laws.
For at least some children, there is a path to residency. But it involves a cruel choice.
Five families on provisional release told Reuters that immigration authorities had outlined a deal to them: The children could stay in Japan legally if the parents returned to their country of origin. Immigration officials confirmed such an arrangement exists, but said the offer was only made in cases where the family first raised it.
That’s not how Gursewak’s father tells it. It was early on a weekday in mid-2015 when Bharpoor Singh says he got a phone call from the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau asking him and his wife to come for an interview that same day.
The Singhs were worried. In the past, such requests had been made in writing. And only a few months earlier, their appeal against the rejection of their asylum application had been turned down by the authorities.
The first part of the meeting followed the pattern of previous engagements, Bharpoor said. Speaking through a Punjabi interpreter, an immigration official quizzed the Singhs about their lives, in particular how they made a living. Bharpoor told the official that their only means of support were donations from a Sikh charity and individuals in the Sikh community.
Then, about an hour into the interview, Bharpoor said the officer made the Singhs an offer that left them badly shaken: He and his wife could return to India, while Gursewak and his siblings remained behind in Japan, where they might then stand a chance of getting residency.
“I said that we couldn’t leave our children because they were still small,” Bharpoor recalled. “And they have religious needs such as a vegetarian diet and wearing turbans. Their mom does all of that for them. We’d never thought of separating, that would be absolutely impossible.”
Gursewak was horrified when he heard about the offer. “Who would look after us?” he said. “We can’t work. What would the twins do?”
Immigration officials say that they never initiate such offers but they are open to the idea if it is first broached by the family. They said they didn’t know how many cases there had been in which parents agreed to separate from their children in the hope of giving them a better life in Japan.
“If the children themselves wish to stay in Japan even after their parents leave, and there are guardians who take care of them and their living expenses can be covered, then we can consider whether to grant them special residence permits,” said Tadashi Shirayori, who oversees special residency permits at the Justice Ministry.
Ex-Justice Minister Chiba said several of these deals with migrant families had come across her desk during her tenure from 2009 to 2010. There was no official policy stipulating how the arrangement should work, the offer usually was not put in writing, and it was done on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“Separating the parents from their children is not how it should be,” Chiba said. But it’s difficult to let the parents off without punishment, she added. “So in the end, we ask the parents to go home.”
Bharpoor says he can’t go home. He fled the village of Sakruli in the Indian state of Punjab in 1992 after he was persecuted as a Sikh religious leader, he said. India put down an armed revolt for a separate Sikh homeland that erupted in the late 1970s, and thousands of Sikhs were killed by angry mobs in 1984 in the days following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
According to court documents from two trials related to his status in Japan, Bharpoor said he was arrested by the Indian police and tortured. He pointed to a scar on his right foot that he said was the result of being given electric shocks.
According to the state police in Punjab, Bharpoor was arrested in March 1989 for allegedly “giving shelter to terrorists and keeping their weapons at his home.” He was tried and found not guilty, and released in November that year.
Satwinder Singh, a police officer in the Hoshiarpur district where the case was filed, said he couldn’t confirm whether Bharpoor was tortured by the police but that it was “quite common to torture the Sikh youth at the time who were arrested for alleged involvement in terrorist activities.”
Singh, who reviewed the old case file, said there was no case pending against Bharpoor and that he was “free to come back.”
After leaving India, Bharpoor headed to Hong Kong, where he spent several months before moving to Japan. All of the family’s four asylum applications have been rejected and they are now applying again. In 2010, Bharpoor said he was detained for 10 months after the third application was denied.
At the time, Gursewak’s mother became ill with anemia and rheumatoid arthritis, leaving 10-year-old Gursewak to care for the family. He would go shopping for frozen food, which he would heat up for his mother, brother and sister.
“I was little and couldn’t understand what was going on,” recalled Gursewak, who wears a kirpan around his neck, a miniature ceremonial dagger carried by Sikh men as a symbol of their faith. “My mother was crying, and my brother and sister were panicking.”
It was the moment Gursewak’s childhood ended. His mother barely spoke Japanese. Fluent in the language, he began calling lawyers and migrant NGOs for help. He also collected signatures from his Japanese neighbors to support his family’s petition for visas.
That’s also when he started writing his letters.
“We are having trouble getting by because my dad’s not here,” he wrote to then-Justice Minister Chiba several months after his father was detained. “Please, I beg you, let my dad out soon.”
Chiba doesn’t recall ever seeing the letters, but says she wants to apologize to Gursewak. “I’d like to say to him, ‘I’m sorry.’ Japan hasn’t been able to set up a system that can properly respond to people like you, and made you suffer greatly as a result,” she said.
With Gursewak’s parents barred from working, the family has to scrape by on donations. They have no health insurance, and medical bills have piled up.
In May, Gursewak fell ill with chronic stomach pains and nausea. Medical tests added more than $700 to the family’s existing debts. A contract with a local hospital shows the Singhs are paying back about $50 a month.
“I’m really worried all the time,” Gursewak said. “Maybe I think too much. But I have to think. College is on the horizon.”
While Gursewak is not barred from attending university, his family cannot afford the fees because they can’t work. Average annual tuition for government-run universities in Japan is around $5,000, plus a one-off entrance fee of about $3,600. The family’s monthly expenses are about $1,800.
Gursewak, who will start his final year of high school in April next year, wants to study web design. He runs a blog about Japan’s Sikh community and showed off a computer in the room he shares with his twin siblings. He built it from scratch with friends using money from his school. When he went to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics hub, to hunt for parts to build the computer, he had to get written permission from the authorities. As part of the process, he had to supply a list of all the shops he planned to visit.
The Singhs’ simple home in Matsudo, a suburb east of Tokyo dotted with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, contains a blend of Sikh and Japanese motifs. A television beams Sikh prayers live from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the bastion of the Sikh religion in northern India. An embroidered map of Japan decorated with cherry blossoms hangs behind it.
On a recent Sunday in September, Bharpoor, a religious leader in the local Sikh community, led prayers at a temple in Tokyo. Gursewak played tabla – traditional drums used in Sikh ceremonies – as his mother and sister sang prayers. Later, they dished out steaming plates of daal and chapatis to the 60-strong congregation.
The Singhs’ lives in Japan have been peppered with legal battles against deportation orders and detention. The authorities have kept close tabs on them. Every two months, the parents and their twin children have to make a three-hour round trip to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau to extend their provisional release permits. Gursewak, who must now make a separate trip because he is over 16, goes every three months.
The Justice Ministry’s Torisu declined to comment on the Singhs’ case, but said immigration officials do make unscheduled visits to the homes of people on provisional release to ensure they are not working in violation of their status.
Immigration authorities are clamping down, detaining people working without permits as well as those who have traveled outside their home prefectures without permission, according to interviews with people on provisional release and immigration activists and lawyers. An internal Justice Ministry memo from September last year reviewed by Reuters called for closer surveillance of people on provisional release.
Chiba describes provisional release as “a totally impossible, contradictory system. Working is illegal, but if so, how are you supposed to live?” she said.
When it comes to children, the provisional release system is “out of touch with reality,” she said, because it “doesn’t look at children independently of their parents. The provisional release system itself wasn’t set up to deal with people who stay in Japan for a long time. So, the fact that these people have children and their children grow up in Japan is beyond the system’s framework.”
The Justice Ministry’s Torisu describes provisional release as a “humanitarian” approach. “We do not think the provisional release system is inhumane or faulty. We have no plans to change or reform this system,” he said in an interview.
After years of writing unanswered letters, Gursewak took his plea to the doorstep of the Justice Ministry in August. Standing in the rain with his father and three other provisional release families, they chanted: “Give us visas! Let us study! Let us have our dreams!”
“I need to raise my voice,” Gursewak said, his fists clenched as he stared straight ahead. “Otherwise, no one will know what is happening to us.”
Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar and Rupam Nair in New Delhi, and Himanshu Ojha in London.