The Kazankiran and Dogan families, seeking asylum in
Japan, conduct a sit-in outside United Nations
University in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on July 16, 2004.
Photo: Masami Ito/The Japan Times
Ahmet Kazankiran reunites with one of his closest
Japanese friends, Tsuyoshi Amemiya (right), a
professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University, in
Tokyo on Monday, Sept 17, 2012. Photo: Masami
Ito/The Japan Times.
being sent back to Turkey, New Zealand offered a
TOKYO, Japan,— Kurdish asylum seeker
Ahmet Kazankiran wanted from Japan was to be
recognized as a refugee, so that he and his family
would be able to live happily together without fear
But on Jan. 18, 2005, the Japanese government forced
him and his oldest son Ramazan onto a plane and sent
them back to Turkey.
The deportation split the family, leaving
Kazankiran's wife, second son and three daughters in
Tokyo in a state of shock, horror and limbo. While
the government didn't deport them, it didn't give
them permission to stay in Japan either, even though
they had been recognized by the United Nations as
With the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for
Refugees, they ended up resettling in New Zealand
more than a year later. Kazankiran meanwhile made it
out of Turkey and was able to reunite with the
Now, for the first time in more than 7½ years,
Kazankiran, 56, is back in Tokyo to tell his story
of what happened after he was kicked out of Japan
and to express his gratitude to the group of
supporters that helped his family when they were
living here — an opportunity for happiness that was
taken from the ethnic Kurd when the authorities
On Monday, Kazankiran met with a group of Japanese
and Kurdish supporters and was welcomed with smiles
and some tears of happiness.
"I am so happy to see them," Kazankiran said during
an interview with The Japan Times. "The Japanese
government is cold and I hate the system, but not
the Japanese people. They are my best friends, they
did everything for us, and I am so grateful."
The Kazankirans and the Dogans, another Kurdish
family seeking asylum, entered the media spotlight
in summer 2004 when they staged a sit-in outside
United Nations University in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.
For more than two months, the two families,
including small children, sat outside in the
scorching summer heat, calling out to passersby to
listen to their story and lend support to people
seeking asylum in Japan.
Although it has signed the U.N. convention on
refugees, Japan is notorious for its reluctance to
harbor them and is often the target of international
criticism for not doing enough to protect those in
In 2011, only 21 people were recognized by Japan as
refugees despite the receipt of 1,867 new
And while many people of Kurdish ethnicity from
Turkey are routinely considered official refugees
around the world — especially in Europe — no Turkish
national has ever been granted that status in Japan.
Kazankiran tried three times to get refugee status
after arriving in Japan in the 1990s.
His family lived apart for 15 years. Although they
finally reunited in Japan in 2003, they didn't have
legal status and were barely able to survive,
receiving almost no support from the government.
"The days of the sit-in were very difficult times,
but somebody had to do it," Kazankiran said. "We
were acting on behalf of all refugees in Japan" for
better treatment by the government.
Slowly but steadily, people of various nationalities
began to gather around the two families to join in
their cause, including Tsuyoshi Amemiya, a professor
emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University, located just
across the street from the U.N. University building.
After Amemiya first encountered the Kazankirans and
the Dogans, he went on to write several books on
people seeking asylum in Japan. He has also
personally supported numerous asylum seekers,
helping them when they encounter trouble with the
authorities or need medical attention, sometimes
giving them money as well.
"I've become very close to the refugees in Japan,
who completely trust me, and helping them has become
my lifework. They are all wonderful people,
including the Kazankirans, but why does Japan send
them away?" Amemiya said. "There is so much that
Japanese people could learn from them, to experience
a different culture and learn the true meaning of
But Kazankiran became the first U.N. "mandate
refugee" to be deported back to his country of
origin, where he feared persecution for
participating in Kurdish rights movements. A mandate
refugee is someone who has been recognized by the
UNHCR as a legitimate refugee. When Kazankiran and
his son Ramazan arrived in Istanbul, they were
separated and forced into police cars and were
unable to reunite for a few years.
After hours of interrogation, Kazankiran was
released and he made his way to stay with relatives.
His son was sent off immediately to join the
military for compulsory service. No matter where
Kazankiran went, he felt he was being followed by
the authorities. He never went anywhere by himself
and made sure he stayed close to the offices of
human rights organizations.
"I knew the authorities wouldn't come after me
immediately after the deportation because everyone
was watching them. But human rights groups and
family members strongly urged me to leave Turkey as
soon as possible because I could have an 'accident'
in six months or a year," Kazankiran said.
Through the support of his Japanese friends, he was
able to fly to the Philippines in March 2005. But
his son couldn't join him.
"There wasn't a day that I didn't think about
Ramazan, I was so worried about him. But I had to
leave," he said.
Kazankiran spent about 10 months in Manila while the
UNHCR helped his family resettle in a third country.
And in January 2006, all of the Kazankirans except
Ramazan were able to see each other once again in
"It felt so good to be with them, to hug them, to be
together again," Kazankiran said with tears in his
eyes. Life in New Zealand was completely different
from the days in Japan when they lived in poverty
and poor health.
In New Zealand they were immediately placed in a
refugee resettlement center for a month and a half,
where they were given medical checkups and learned
the basics of living in New Zealand. Because the
family only knew Kurdish and Japanese,www.ekurd.net
they also spent eight months learning English.
"New Zealand has been so good to us. The government
takes care of everything, from our medical needs to
food and shelter," Kazankiran said. Ramazan, on the
other hand, was forced to remain in Turkey to serve
out his military duty for more than a year.
According to Kaori Shu, a longtime supporter of the
family who organized Monday's event, it doesn't
appear Ramazan had too much trouble in the army. Shu
succeeded in visiting him in Turkey in 2005.
"The Turkish government and the military did not
seem to have the intention to hurt Ramazan, but they
were very nervous about what was being said about
him in the media, including newspapers and on TV,"
After completing his term, Ramazan was able to reach
New Zealand so the entire family could reunite in
March 2007. After living in New Zealand more than
seven years, Kazankiran is now the proud owner of a
Turkish restaurant in Auckland, where the whole
family helps out. His goal, however, does not end
Kazankiran said he will never forget his roots and
wants to retire soon so he can actively help asylum
seekers around the world, especially in Japan.
"It will probably take a long time, but people can
make a change if they try hard enough. You have to
stand up for what you believe in — that is how I
felt when I was doing the sit-in, and that is how I
still feel now."
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