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Local community responses to Kurdish asylum seekers in Japan

By Chiaki Tsuchida  | OMC 2024

Photo by by kitchakron from Getty Images.

In general, once a person is recognised as a refugee under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a host country provides public assistance to him/her towards social integration. However, asylum seekers who are still undergoing refugee status determination often do not yet have access to support from public services, including language and social orientation classes. Without any assistance from the government, the presence of unintegrated asylum seekers is likely to be a factor of fragmentation in a society. 

Previous research on the topic of social integration has largely focused on refugees; there are limited studies which focus on the integration of asylum seekers. Therefore, by looking into the dynamism of a community where asylum seekers reside, the author examines how the community responds to the unintended increase of asylum seekers and how they have tried to maintain the stability of the community. To do this, the paper focuses on a local community in Japan, Kawaguchi city, as a case study. 

In Japan, the annual rate of refugee recognition is significantly lower than in Western countries (less than 4.0% for so-called ‘convention refugees’ in 2023). The situation of Kurdish asylum seekers is especially harsh. Only one Turkish Kurd has ever been granted refugee status since the mid-1990s when refugee status applications by Turkish Kurds began. Despite this, Turkish nationals, most of whom consider themselves Kurds, have appeared higher in the list of the refugee status applicants in recent years. No matter how difficult it is for Turkish Kurds to be recognised as refugees, refugee status application seems to be a survival strategy for them to stay in Japan. Additionally, there is a tendency for Kurdish asylum seekers to bring their immediate family members or distant relatives from Turkey to Japan and encourage them to also apply for refugee status. As a result, approximately 2,000 Kurdish people including asylum seekers with unstable statuses now reside in Kawaguchi city in Saitama prefecture (next to Tokyo). The local community has been faced with responding to the unintended increase of Kurdish asylum seekers who, regardless of their visa status, do not receive official support from the Japanese government.  

In order to investigate the community responses to the increase of Kurdish asylum seekers, this study carried out semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, including with the local government, a volunteer group dedicated to Japanese language learning, another volunteer group offering cultural classes, and the Japan Kurdish Cultural Association. This study traces their activities through data primarily obtained from their websites from 2014 to 2023. With this data, the research considers how each actor tries to include Kurdish asylum seekers as members of the society, from the perspective of human security.  

The main findings indicate that there are several ways in which the local community attempts to mitigate the instability. Firstly, the local government provides a consultation service about daily life as well as daily information in Turkish language to the asylum seekers. Secondly, a Japanese language class tries to empower Kurdish women who tend to be culturally isolated in the community by teaching Japanese language towards the promotion of their social participation. This class also supports their daily lives by providing information on daily life and school education through utilising social networking services. Thirdly, a Kurdish culture class contributes to a reduction of the distrust between Japanese people and Kurds by providing an opportunity to make Kurdish dishes and handicrafts. Fourthly, the Japanese Kurdish Cultural Association regularly makes the rounds of the community at night with Japanese police and residents. In addition, the Japanese Kurdish Cultural Association makes efforts to build a good relationship with Japanese people as well as preserve Kurdish identity. 

Overall, these activities try to prevent fragmentation within the community and promote the integration of asylum seekers. This paper concludes that the local community strengthens its resilience by a self-help effort from the multi-level approaches: the local government, Japanese-based volunteer groups and Kurdish association.

Dr Chiaki Tsuchida is assistant professor in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. She is currently involved in a research project as a member of the Collaborative Research Organisation for Future Regional Society. Dr Tsuchida received her PhD. from the University of Tokyo. Dr Tsuchida has explored how Japan includes asylum seekers; her research mainly focuses on the decision-making of Japan’s refugee policy at a national level, as well as community development, with a focus on areas where asylum seekers mainly reside at a local level. 


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