The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq have produced more than 12 million refugees and internally displaced people. They are flooding across borders in the region, and some neighboring states have reached their limit. One-third of Lebanon’s population now comprises refugees.
Meanwhile, Japan, a signatory member of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, recognized only six refugees in 2013. To this day, no Syrian has ever received such status.
During a visit to Tokyo last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called on Japan to review its rigid refugee recognition system.
“The numbers are quite low. . . . I think there is a reasonable presumption that the system is too rigid and too restrictive and it would be useful to make it more in line with what are the best practices in international refugee status determination,” Guterres told The Japan Times.
The Justice Ministry says 56 Syrians have made their way to Japan and filed for asylum, but to no avail. This is because, the ministry says, fleeing conflict is not a definition of a refugee as codified in the refugee convention. Instead, 36 of them have been given special residence permits on humanitarian grounds.
Without official refugee status, however, the Syrians’ rights are limited. And although it is not impossible, the system makes it very difficult for them to bring their families to Japan.
“If one comes from Syria, there is a high level of presumption that that person is in need of protection in one way or another,” Guterres said.
The Japanese government should help reunite them with their families, he added.
Japan is notorious for its extremely low recognition rate, which Justice Ministry officials justify as careful screening. The number of applications has been increasing, with 3,260 cases in 2013, a 28 percent rise from the year before.
Recent media reports, however, have suggested that some individuals seeking asylum are really just economic migrants.
Guterres acknowledged that there are people trying to abuse the system in other countries too, and urged the Japanese government to seek assistance from the UNHCR, which has extensive experience with refugee recognition, including detecting certain dialects or knowledge about the country of origin that would help determine whether the asylum seeker is telling the truth.
“It is this kind of expertise that allows us to detect those situations that really correspond to an abuse of the system,” Guterres said. “We recognize that not everyone who asks for asylum is a refugee. . . . We are in favor of a system that is able to perfectly distinguish those who are economic migrants from those who are indeed fleeing conflict or persecution and require protection.”
The former prime minister of Portugal has made 12 trips to Japan during his two terms as high commissioner since 2005. This visit had a special objective: to raise awareness here about the 10 million stateless people around the world.
The UNHCR says statelessness can result from a range of causes, including exclusionary national laws that discriminate against people because of their ethnic or religious background. Without nationality, these people have no access to public service, health care and education but cannot leave because they lack passports. They cannot hold jobs legally and are not even issued death certificates when they die. This year, the UNHCR launched a campaign to end the problem of statelessness within a decade.
An exhibition of photographs by Greg Constantine, currently based in Southeast Asia, will be held at the Haneda International Airport Terminal from Friday through Sunday. Titled “Nowhere People,” the images depict the harsh realities faced by those who are not recognized as citizens in their own countries. The photos were displayed in one of the Lower House office building near the Diet earlier this week.
From the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Urdu-speaking Biharis in Bangladesh to the Dalits in Nepal and Nubians and Galjeel people in Kenya, Constantine’s photographs depict the daily agony they face. Their eyes show a deep sense of emptiness but also a quiet resilience. Japan, too, has about 600 stateless people, according to the Japan UNHCR office.
“Statelessness, the fact that 10 million people do not have any nationality in the world to have a country to call theirs is probably the most forgotten aspect of the humanitarian agenda,” Guterres said.
“It is a human tragedy . . . and the level of suffering for many of them is atrocious.”
He pointed out that only 42 states have acceded to the two conventions to help stateless people. He urged Japan to join them.
“In Japan there are not many stateless people . . . but to us, it would have a very symbolic value because Asia is the continent where less ratification is taking place and the leadership of Japan could be very important,” Guterres said.