By Saburo Takizawa / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunThe Justice Ministry announced that 42 asylum seekers were granted refugee status in accordance with the U.N. refugee convention in Japan last year, in addition to 40 who were not recognized as refugees but were granted residence permits on humanitarian grounds. The combined total of 82 marked an increase from the 2017 total of 65, with many of the asylum seekers coming from countries in Africa and the Middle East, where armed conflict and human rights abuses are rampant.
Yet the number of those applying for refugee status in Japan last year plunged to 10,493, almost half of the 19,629 who applied in 2017. The number of applications had been growing about 50 percent per year after the government, in 2010, began uniformly granting work permits to asylum seekers six months after their applications for refugee status in principle, which imposed a heavy burden on the refugee recognition system.
This sharp increase in applications reversed after the Justice Ministry enforced measures against those who clearly do not qualify as refugees, such as not granting residence permits to applicants.
The chaos surrounding the refugee recognition process is settling down.
However, the government’s decision last year to grant only 82 applicants refugee status or permission to remain on humanitarian grounds — despite allocating considerable resources to the recognition process — calls into question Japan’s very reason for ratifying the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The government should broaden its interpretation of those facing “fear of persecution” — the Convention’s standard for determining who is a refugee — which is said to be overly restrictive compared with those of Western countries. Doing so will allow more refugees to find safety in Japan, and I hope the newly established Immigration Service Agency will revise its policies as needed.
The nation’s refugee policy should also be consistent with the government’s new policy to accept more foreign workers, which took effect in April. Though Japan grants refugee or similar status on humanitarian grounds to fewer than 100 asylum seekers per year, despite a global need to protect such individuals, it is expected to accept as many as 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years as a means of addressing the domestic labor shortage. One cannot help stop feeling a sense of unfairness.
However, it is not enough to simply discuss protecting asylum seekers in terms of granting refugee status. In the past nine years, Japan has accepted 174 Myanmar refugees under the third-country resettlement program, through which third countries take in refugees who fled their homelands but cannot settle in the countries of first asylum. The government will increase the number of refugees it accepts through this program from 30 annually to about 60, and will consider raising the yearly total to more than 100.
Third-country resettlement is expected to be central to Japan’s refugee policy going forward, with those accepted through this process surpassing the 30 to 40 individuals granted refugee status per year in Japan on the basis of the U.N. refugee convention.
Furthermore, the government began accepting about 30 Syrian refugees as students annually in 2017. Private organizations and schools also have begun helping Syrian refugees pursue their studies in Japan.
Japanese society is gradually openings its doors to a growing number of refugees. This is a welcome development in light of the backlash against refugees in Europe and the United States.
Taking a broad view, it is not enough to simply help refugees in Japan. There are about 25.9 million refugees worldwide and about 41 million internally displaced people (IDPs), who face difficulty leaving their countries. Support for them is also essential.
The government contributes about ¥15 billion annually to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), helping to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The nonprofit organization Japan for UNHCR likewise raised ¥3.6 billion in 2018 to help refugees and IDPs.
Both the public and private sectors should play active roles in the debate over refugees, exploring issues beyond the number of recognized refugees.
Takizawa is a visiting professor at The Graduate School of Toyo Eiwa University and special adviser to the nonprofit organization Japan for UNHCR. He served as a UNHCR representative in Japan from 2007 to 2008. He is 71.Speech