The Rohingyas: Family torn apart by differences in status

TATEBAYASHI, Japan - Standing in a room littered with toy cars at her home in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, Zaidhon, a 27-year-old Rohingya woman, felt a crushing sense of isolation as she gazed upon her son, who had just gone to sleep. Her husband, 33, has not been home in three months. And what is more, they have another child on the way.

Fleeing persecution, Zaidhon's husband, a fellow Rohingya, left Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, and came to Japan via China in 2006. He used a forged passport, and for this and other reasons his stay was deemed illegal. With refugee status not granted, he was given "provisional release status."

He could live in Tatebayashi while avoiding deportation and detention by immigration authorities, but was not authorised to work or move out of the prefecture. Once every three months, he presented himself at the immigration office in Tokyo and renewed his residence permit.

When he went there to renew it in August this year, however, he was apparently judged to be "actually working" and was detained.

Zaidhon has been staying legally in Japan since she first came in 2011. She is able to get by with food, toys and other help provided by fellow Rohingyas who are working in Japan after having received refugee status or special residence permission through humanitarian consideration.

"I don't understand why my husband's residence status is different from that of our friends," she said doubtfully. "All I want to do is just live together as a family." Her loneliness is amplified by the fact that her husband may not be able to be at her side when their second child is born next year.

In addition to limitations on work and movement, persons with provisional release status are unable to enroll in national health insurance.

Aung Aung, 38, came to Japan in 2006 and lives in Tatebayashi. He has back trouble, but does not receive treatment as he is unable to cover the high medical costs. He gets by with help from his Rohingya acquaintances for costs including rent and medicine.

"I like Japan, and if I return home I'll be persecuted. So I don't want to go back," he said. "But I can't work, so I'm worried about what will happen in the future. I just end up thinking, 'As long as I can get a visa.'"

According to the Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan (BRAJ), there are about 20 Rohingyas with provisional release status in Tatebayashi. They receive support from Rohingya friends as they are unable to work and earn income. The BRAJ president is Aung Tin, 47, who received refugee status, became naturalized and runs a used car dealership.

"It's hard too for those of us supporting the livelihoods of people with provisional release status," he explained. "They feel discontent, asking, 'Why only us?'"

At its general meeting held in mid-October, the association agreed on a policy calling for action from the Japanese government to grant visas to those with provisional release status.

Gratitude for local livelihood support

Those with provisional release status are positioned under law as "persons without refugee status who would normally have to return to their home country, but are unable due to certain circumstances," according to the enforcement division of the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau. For the areas in which they live, however, this means dealing with people who have unstable lives.

In late October, Sansyoukai, a nonprofit organisation in Tatebayashi that distributes free food to the needy, heard of the plight of Rohingyas with provisional release status. They provided food, including 80 kilograms of rice and 50 boxes of chocolate, to the BRAJ. Local farmers also donated rice. BRAJ's secretary general Khan Mohammed, 46, was pleased with the support. "There's a limit on how much we can support each other," he said.

Zaidhon, too, consulted her son's day care centre regarding her husband's detention. "They told me, 'Don't worry,' and helped me out," she said.

In the event that refugee status is not granted, residence status "does not have clear-cut standards, and the individual circumstances for each case are reviewed," an official in charge of the Immigration Bureau explained. Such a state of affairs is one cause of the Rohingyas' pronounced discomfort.

The Japan Association for Refugees, an NPO based in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, said: "The local governments and other entities that are actually taking in refugees and migrants cannot freely recognise their legal status. The national government needs not only to provide residence status, but also maintain a standpoint of all-inclusive refuge."

Tightening checks for refugee certification

Refugees are defined in global treaties as foreigners who may be subject to persecution in their home country due to race, religion or other reasons. The refugee certification process determines whether or not applicants fall under this definition.

In Japan, those who are certified receive support measures such as Japanese language education, and are allowed to settle. Of the 5,000 who applied last year, 11 were recognised.

Even if not granted refugee status, there are cases in which people receive, at the discretion of the Justice Ministry, special residence permission through humanitarian consideration. In Japan last year, 110 people received such a qualification. While they cannot get the same support as those with refugee status, they are allowed to work and do other activities.

On the other hand, applicants risk deportation if they are not granted such certification. Provisional release status is only permitted if certain conditions are met, such as having a guarantor.

There have been instances of "fake refugees" - people who use the system as a way to stay in Japan and try to get opportunities for employment. In consideration of abused women in Africa and other such cases, the national government in September added "new forms of persecution" to the eligibility criteria for refugees.

Despite this, however, they have set a course for tightening status checks. Special residence permission through humanitarian consideration is a policy carried out for those escaping conflict and other such circumstances.