Four asylum seekers from strife-riven Syria sued the central government at the Tokyo District Court on Tuesday, demanding that they be recognized as refugees.
The move, the first of its kind by Syrians in Japan, represents a direct challenge to the government’s persistent reluctance to grant refugee status to people who have fled from the Middle Eastern nation torn apart by civil war.
It is also a dig at Japan’s notoriously rigid, conservative scrutiny of applications from would-be refugees, which critics say runs counter to its participation in a 1951 multinational refugee treaty, lawyers said.
“In a sense, the lawsuit aims to pressure the government into heeding calls from the global community to accept Syrian asylum seekers as official refugees,” Mitsuru Nanba, a member of a group of lawyers aiding the Syrians, said at a news conference.
The lawsuit also came days after the government granted refugee status to three asylum seekers from Syria. The award, last Thursday, was the first related to victims of Syria’s pro-democracy uprising, which began in 2011.
As of last November, 61 Syrians had applied for recognition in Japan, but until last week none had been recognized as a refugee.
The plaintiffs in Tuesday’s suit are four Syrian men aged 22 to 35. Each reached Japan in summer 2012 and applied for refugee status shortly after arrival. Authorities rejected all four applications, and instead gave each man in 2013 a more precarious tentative residence permit, which amounts to special permission to stay on “humanitarian” grounds.
All four have a history of participating in Syrian pro-democracy protests and thus would be “highly vulnerable to persecution” if repatriated, a complaint filed with the district court says.
“I submitted reams of documents to the Immigration, but they wouldn’t give me the status,” Joude Youssef, one of the plaintiffs, told the news conference. “I don’t know what to do or what awaits my future.”
The tentative residence permit that Youssef and the other plaintiffs have been granted requires annual renewal, illustrating their legally unstable nature. Unlike official refugees, those with temporary permits do not qualify for government assistance, such as help in studying Japanese and finding employment.
All plaintiffs would certainly have been given refugee status if scrutinized in accordance with global standards, said Hiroshi Miyauchi, another lawyer supporting them.
Japan tends to recognize refugees only when they are politically active enough to be personally targeted by their government back home. But by global standards, that is a very “outdated” and “rigid” way to interpret what constitutes a refugee status, Miyauchi said.
“Rather, what matters essentially is whether a person is likely to face any grave violation of their human rights when repatriated,” he said.
Meanwhile, Japan recognized only 11 claimants as refugees last year — the second-lowest of any year in the past decade, Justice Ministry figures showed last week.
The Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, a lawyers’ group supporting asylum seekers, said in a statement released in response to the ministry’s data that the nation’s refugee system is now “in crisis” and called for a sweeping overhaul.
In a statement last week, the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) likewise expressed its “severe disappointment” at the persistently low refugee recognition rate.
The JAR said the refugee system is a critically important framework for people fleeing persecution and that its chief concern has to do with “protecting” such individuals, not “controlling” them.
“We will look at the complaint and deal with it properly when it arrives,” the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau said in a statement Tuesday.