Japan students supporting stateless people

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Tokyo's Waseda University students are supporting stateless people

Chen Tienshi, a 44-year-old associate professor at Tokyo's Waseda University who was a stateless person for over 30 years, began activities to support stateless people seven years ago. Students who sympathised with her activities established their own support organisation and plan to expand their own activities in the spring to bring attention to the lives of stateless people and reduce discrimination against them.

They hope as many people as possible will learn that stateless people — those who are not recognised as a citizen by any state — face many troubles in Japan as well.

“My parents are Vietnamese. Of course, I thought my citizenship was the same, but my name was not registered in Vietnam and I do not have a passport,” 20-year-old Pham Thi Hery, a second-year student at Daito Bunka University in Saitama near Tokyo who is the daughter of an Indochina refugee, said when visiting Chen. Pham was worried she would be unable to participate in an overseas volunteer project.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, three countries in Indochina, all shifted to socialist and communist regimes around 1975, leading people to become afraid of persecution and flee overseas.

Pham’s father escaped Vietnam in 1987 and later married. Pham was born in Japan, where the family moved, but her birth was not registered in Vietnam, and she does not have Japanese citizenship either.

“Pham is probably a stateless person,” said Chen, who was stateless for over 30 years until naturalising and receiving Japanese citizenship in 2003.

Chen’s parents are from the Chinese mainland, and after relocating to Taiwan after World War II they moved to Japan. When Japan severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan upon the normalisation of Japan-China relations in 1972, Chen’s parents were forced to choose between Chinese and Japanese citizenship. Divided by ideology and unable to choose, the whole family became stateless.

In Japan, stateless people are often mistaken for illegal immigrants, and some have faced problems such as difficulty having their marriages recognised.

In January 2009, Chen launched an NPO called Stateless Network to support stateless people through activities such as counseling with lawyers. These activities gained attention, and Chen has recently been invited to do more lectures at foreign universities and international organisations.

Waseda University students who were impressed with Chen and her network’s activities formed a student organisation called Stateless Network Youth in 2014. This April, the student group plans to ramp up its activities by holding study groups and other events, including a photo exhibition at the university in May.

Mihana Higashi, a 22-year-old third-year student at Waseda Univeristy who is the leader of the group, said “many young people do not know anything about stateless people. We hope our activities will help raise awareness about their challenges.”

Chen, who serves as an adviser to the group and supports it, said, “We want the government to understand and clearly show what it can do about the issue, so we can build a society without discrimination against stateless persons.”

(The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 10 million people around the world lack citizenship, having fled discrimination or newly independent nations. According to the Justice Ministry, there are around 600 stateless persons in Japan who are legally resident, but it is thought the number is much higher when including those who have a citizenship written on their residence card but are not registered in their home countries.)

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