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If you’re a refugee, don’t even bother with Japan


The Japanese word for "refugee" is "nanmin".

The Japanese word for "refugee" is "nanmin".

How did one of the wealthiest countries in the world become one of the least welcoming?

Advocates and lawyers in Japan are disappointed with how the country is handling – or more accurately, ‘not’ handling – applications by asylum seekers. Why? Because, according to newly released data by the Ministry of Justice, Japan accepted only 11 asylum seekers out of a record 5,000 applications in 2014.

Yes, you read that right: 11 out of 5,000!

Although the Ministry of Justice data represents a significant 53% improvement over the previous year when Japan accepted only six refugees – its lowest in 15 years – it doesn’t change the fact that Japan’s refugee recognition rate is almost non-existent at 0.2%, in stark contrast with the 2013 global average of 32%.

“The low recognition rate is shameful,” says immigration lawyer Shogo Watanabe.

A lack of planning for the protection and resettlement of refugees, as well as dysfunction in the system that processes asylum claims, is to blame for the low intake, says Mieko Ishikawa, director of Forum for Refugees Japan.

“There’s no comprehensive policy on the part of the government, and there are gaps in the system’s transparency, efficiency and independence,” says Ishikawa.

In contrast, Germany and the US were the largest destinations for asylum seekers in 2013, receiving 109,580 and 88,360 applications respectively, UN High Commissioner for Refugees data shows.

Perhaps it’s just not in the nature of Japan to be welcoming of outsiders. “No other developed refugee jurisdiction has such a consistently low rate,” says Brian Barbour of the Japan Association for Refugees.

Rising number

Asylum applications have risen nearly four-fold since 2010, when legal changes gave re-applicants the right to work as their claims were being processed. The sharp increase is in part down to the attractiveness of Japan to foreign workers, some of who claim asylum to stay in the country, say immigration officials.

“Most people aren’t coming for political reasons. In countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, many people think they can come to Japan to work,” says Hiroshi Kimizuka, director of refugee recognition at the Ministry of Justice.

A labour shortage has pushed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to expand a “trainee” programme for manual workers that has been criticised for poor conditions and human rights abuses. The government has also sought to attract white collar foreigners, while insisting that the measures are not an “immigration policy”. – Reuters

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