Sunday, September 02, 2007

Illegal Iranians slip to Japan

Illegal Iranians slip to Japan

by Vladimir Kunitsyn

Vladivostok border guards last year detained over 100 Middle Easterners, mostly Iranians, who use the city as a stepping stone to illegally entering Japan.

The Iranians and others have been attracted by Japan, according to border guards, sailors and others familiar with the cross-continental trek from Iran to Japan. They are drawn towards the Far East by hopes of a better life, rather than the desire to see an exotic land or by its ancient samurai culture. They travel, as a rule, as tourists using faked Azrbaijanian passports or, more often, as stowaways.

Russian sailors have been spotting more and more Middle Eastern owners of used car lots in Japan. Many Russian auto dealers buy second-hand cars only from Iranians today. The sale of used cars is one of the most popular and lucrative businesses among immigrants. Other businesses are consumer goods retail and restaurants.

Iranians are highly organized, as a rule, and find jobs and housing already arranged for them in Japan. Many Arab and Iranian students in the country don't all leave but land good jobs using their language skills. Then they support relatives who arrive illegally via Vladivostok and Nakhodka.

A trip from Iran to the Land of the Rising Sun costs an average of $10,000. In a country where monthly salaries rarely exceed $300, the whole clan pitches in. They start by crossing from Iran to Azerbaijan, then head on to Russia. Those who opt for the legal way just buy a tourist trip or open a business visa. The illegal way is to obtain a Soviet passport with Azerbaijani citizenship, which opens up great traveling opportunities. The fact that most Iranians speak the same language as Azerbaijanis eases the process.

Iranians usually get to Vladivostok by train. This takes longer, but is safer, because visas are not checked in trains.

Iranians normally travel in groups with someone who speaks Russian and Japanese. A group's average age is about 30. One border guard officer believes the local Caucasian community helps Iranians out in Vladivostok.

"To find a person capable of organizing an illegal crossing of the border takes just a walk around Vladivostok markets," the officer said.

At first Iranians tried to get to Japan using fake passports. Early in 1992, 12 Iranians with Azerbaijani passports were arrested on a tourist ship en route to Japan.

Today the preference is given to stowing away. Last July, a border guard detail found three Iranians in sewage tank on the research vessel Priboi. An investigation established that they got aboard after getting the watchman drunk. The find was reported to Japanese authorities as border guards suspected there might be more Iranians hiding out on the ship.

A Japanese destroyer carrying 100 customs officers met the Priboi for a 36-hour long search. Nobody else was found, only a pneumatic pistol. Priboi was not allowed into port.

The Japanese now have a blacklist of the ships which have at least once carried stowaways. The Japanese distrust the crews of these ships, because it's close to impossible to get into the hold or a tank of a ship without being helped by a crew member.

According to Russian border guards, one of the precautions taken by the Japanese authorities is limiting the number of Russian sailors coming ashore. This prevents Russian tourists from buying second-hand Japanese cars -- often the goal of a call at a Japanese port. Thus, sometimes time and money prove to be wasted. In the long run tourist companies dealing in tours to Japan can end up losing.

Krai police have yet to arrest any organizers of illegal border crossings by foreign citizens. It is close to impossible to nab one red-handed. Iranians who were busted are fined and deported at their expense. A two-year prison term may be applied only in case of smuggling.

Last August a border guard detail found an Iranian in the Antonina Nezhdanova's funnel who had 1.7 kilograms of opium on him. There have been attempts to smuggle firearms. Security agencies believe these crimes are efforts to lay the groundwork for future drug and weapons trafficking.

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