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.