Staff writer

In an apparent policy shift, the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau has started issuing special residence permits to an increasing number of political asylum seekers here while dismissing their applications for refugee status.

Since early September at least 11 foreigners — 10 from Myanmar and one Sudanese — have received the permit after their refugee status applications were rejected, lawyers supporting them said.

Over the past 10 years the ministry issued fewer than 10 such permits each year to asylum seekers. None received the permit last year.

A special residence permit, which is renewable every year, gives the holder the right to live, work and travel in Japan, whereas many asylum seekers whose cases remain pending are practically handled as illegal residents.

Refugee applicants’ lawyers speculate that the ministry appears to have decided to issue more permits as an alternative to refugee status, while keeping intact the nation’s standard for accepting refugees — often criticized as too rigid compared to other industrialized countries.

Officials at the ministry’s bureau denied that there has been any change of policy. Kuniko Ozaki, head of the Refugee Recognition Office at the bureau, said that for years the ministry has provided foreigners with special residence permits when it determined they couldn’t be sent back to their home countries “for humanitarian reasons” even though they do not qualify as political refugees.

But Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer involved in Myanmar cases, said he suspects a “dramatic shift of policy” took place recently. Since early September, 10 Myanmar citizens received the special permit when they turned up at an immigration bureau office in Kita Ward, Tokyo, for a deportation procedure. All of the 10 had overstayed their visas, and they appeared at the office as part of authorities’ investigation of their immigration law violation.

The 10 from Myanmar and one Sudanese were granted the permit immediately after — or almost at the same time as — their refugee status applications were dismissed.

While lawyers and supporters of asylum seekers hail the bureau’s move to issue the permits, they are just as confused over the authorities’ motives and are worried they might change back to their previous policies at any time.

Shigeki Miyazaki, professor emeritus at Meiji University, said the ministry’s move is a step forward. “It is one example of immigration authorities’ apparent stance to respond to domestic and foreign criticism that Japan is too closed to foreigners,” he said. “The fact that permits have been issued is welcome.”

The latest development came as Japan faces increasingly harsh pressure both here and abroad to speed up asylum procedures.

The number of people filing for political asylum has jumped considerably in the last few years. The number of applications reached 242 in 1997, compared with 147 in 1996 and 52 in 1995.

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