Two former local staff at the Japanese Embassy in Kabul and their families who are currently seeking refugee status in Japan have recounted how Foreign Ministry officials sought to pressure them and other former staff to return to their homeland, warning them of the "hell" they faced if they stayed.

In a recent interview with Kyodo News, one of the men, a father in his 30s who called himself Akbar (not his real name), said he and his family evacuated to Japan after the Taliban was restored to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 but temporarily returned to their homeland the following year at the urging of Foreign Ministry officials who said they would find it impossible to live in Japan.

The fathers of two families who re-entered Japan after returning to Afghanistan and are currently seeking refugee status were interviewed by Kyodo News on April 10, 2023 in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

"It will be a difficult life for you living in Japan -- like living in hell. You'd better discuss what to do with your family," some Afghan staff remember being told. Without Japanese language ability, they wouldn't even be able to rent accommodation or find a job, some were told.

"I still don't understand why they brought us to Japan and tried to send us home immediately," Akbar said.

Akbar, however, was one of the fortunate ones who were able to return to Japan again after finding that life back in Kabul was still too dangerous. He says others who also left Japan at the Foreign Ministry's urging have been unable to get back into the country after waiving their reentry permits.

According to local staff and others, 169 staff and their family members were evacuated to Japan from the embassy in Kabul by the Japanese government between October and December 2021.

But while the evacuation was deemed necessary because of the risk the staff and their families faced of being detained or punished by the Taliban as "collaborators with a foreign government," after arriving in Japan, many were repeatedly asked when they planned to go home.

One Japanese supporter of Afghan refugees speculated: "The Foreign Ministry probably wanted to get rid of them. But this response violates the Refugee Convention, which prohibits the repatriation of people to countries of persecution."

Akbar says he agreed to return to his home country after some hesitation because he still had relatives there. But once back, he and others who had also returned felt unsafe once again for fear of persecution.

The experience of Akbar and other local embassy staff in returning home only to face renewed danger could impact the Diet's ongoing deliberations on an amendment of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act aimed at allowing the deportation of undocumented individuals, including those who have pending refugee applications.

According to Akbar, the other staff member, and the two men's family members, the large group that arrived in fall 2021 stayed at an accommodation facility in Tokyo but the Afghans were strongly advised by ministry officials to return home as soon as possible.

Staff members remained under contract with the Japanese government but were notified that the contracts would be terminated at the end of August 2022 and asked to vacate the accommodation facility beforehand.

But they were told that if they returned to their homeland they could continue working at the embassy with a salary increase, with their air travel expenses paid by the Foreign Ministry. Akbar was among 58 people, including the other staff member and their families, who returned to Afghanistan between March and July last year. Seven others went from Japan to Britain and the United States.

But while local staff returned to their jobs at the embassy, their children's school remained closed due to a series of terrorist bombings in Kabul.

Taliban soldiers stand at a security checkpoint in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, on Dec. 13, 2022. (Kyodo)

Akbar, who has five children with his wife, says that after his return he felt threatened by Taliban soldiers who called him a spy. "I couldn't let my family stay in that dangerous place. It was a mistake to go home," he said, adding that he was able to return to Japan since he still had a reentry permit, which allows the holder to return within one year after leaving the country. "I am happy my children can go to school now," he said.

The two families arrived back in Japan in October last year. They have found employment at a Tokyo hotel, among other jobs, and have applied for refugee status.

Akbar's colleague Sabor (also not his real name), a father in his 40s in the other family, also returned using a reentry permit.

But, the two men said, most local embassy workers who now wish to return to Japan are unable to do so, and are seeking assistance from the Japanese government. Additionally, they say, among the 80 or so local staff and family members who did not evacuate to Japan the first time, some now wish to do so.

Although the embassy in Kabul, which had been temporarily closed, has reopened, for security reasons it does not, in principle, provide visa issuance services necessary for entry into Japan.

The men explained that getting a visa at Japanese embassies in neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran is necessary but obtaining a passport to leave Afghanistan is problematic. Sabor hopes the Japanese government will listen to the pleas of those who have worked for Japan at its embassy in Kabul.

Even so, an official at the Foreign Ministry's Middle East section denied officials have been "strongly persuading" or pushing the Afghan staff to return to their homeland.

"The embassy reopened (last September), and both Japanese and local staff have returned to work, although on a limited basis. We have not heard of anyone wishing to return to Japan," the official said.

Of the 104 people who fled Afghanistan and stayed in Japan, 98 were granted refugee status as a group in August 2022, the same time their employment contracts concluded with the Foreign Ministry. Six have either been granted refugee status subsequently or are currently applying.

From October 2022, the 98 refugees received support from the Japanese government for six months in the form of living expenses and Japanese language education, which ended in March.

Many have large families and have received donations of food and other items from private organizations. But since they still need to learn to speak Japanese, they have struggled to find jobs.

A man in his 50s who was granted refugee status and asked to be referred to as Ali lives in Saitama Prefecture, outside Tokyo. Making a contrast with support for Afghans, he noted that the Japanese government continues to provide generous assistance to Ukrainians displaced by Russia's invasion.

He asked the government to also assist "those of us who left their home country after working for the Japanese Embassy," by providing further Japanese education and help with starting small businesses, such as family-owned restaurants in Japan.

Related coverage:

Japan unveils guidelines on refugee status recognition for 1st time

Japan grants refugee status to 98 Afghans fleeing Taliban

Afghan evacuee in Japan would return home if Taliban change policy