Refugees in Japan

This year the number of applicants for refugee status in Japan has increased to its highest level ever — nearly 1,000 people — according to the Japan Association for Refugees. This indicates an improving system and an expanding view of how to handle refugees coming to Japan. Last summer the government showed some willingness to increase the number of applicants it would consider, but did not say exactly what it would do. Substantial improvements are greatly needed.

As a signatory to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, Japan was already behind in its obligations when it began granting asylum in 1981. Since then, the world refugee situation has worsened dramatically. On World Refugee Day, June 20, the number of refugees worldwide during 2007 was estimated at 16 million, with an additional 51 million internally displaced people. Japan’s 1,000 applicants hardly register amid these mind-boggling numbers.

Even Sweden, population 9 million, processed 9,000 applicants in 2007. The United States, meanwhile, granted asylum to over 50,000 in 2007 and projects an increase of 20,000 for 2008. With the top 15 industrialized nations receiving a total of 600,000 asylum applications, Japan’s efforts amount to a token gesture.

The rejection rate for refugees in Japan, roughly 90 percent, is the highest for any industrialized nation. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, Japan has accepted only 451 refugees over the last 25 years. In 2006 only 26 were granted asylum and only 41 in 2007. The usual litany of excuses — overcrowding, weak economy, fragile legal system — might explain Japanese reluctance to accept refugees, but other nations confront these problems as well.

As with many other world problems, Japan has been reasonably generous with donations to UNHCR. It is the third-largest donor after the U.S. and EU. Money is not everything, of course, especially for a problem that demands legal, practical and human solutions. Japan’s willingness to assist with this major world problem will continue to offer evidence of its capacity for compassion and its integration into the world, or lack thereof.