In 1981, Japan signed the U.N. 1951 Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees and in 1982, it inked the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and enacted the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law. Signatories are obliged to give refugees due recognition and protect their basic human rights.

However, human rights organizations have long criticized the government for the low number of people Japan recognizes as refugees, and the lack of transparency and objectivity in its recognition process.

Here are some questions and answers about refugees in Japan:

Who qualifies as a refugee?

Article 1 of the conventions defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” As a signatory, Japan is obliged to recognize anyone who falls under this definition as a refugee.

So-called boat people from Vietnam, regarded as economic refugees, did not fall under the conventions and their status was processed differently. They are no longer a factor, however.

How many asylum-seekers have been recognized as refugees in Japan?

According to the Immigration Bureau, 4,882 asylum-seekers have applied for refugee status in Japan since 1982. More than half of the applicants were from Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, whose asylum-seekers were by and large of the Kurd minority.

However, only 410 have been granted refugee status, including 145 from Myanmar. In 2006, the total number of recognized refugees was 34, of which 28 were from Myanmar, out of a total of 954 applicants. No Kurd has gained the status.

Isn’t the number of recognized refugees small?

The ministry argues that the number of applicants is low. It also claims that Japan’s being an island nation may be a factor, although the lion’s share of those seeking refugee status arrive by air. Boatloads from China, for example, have been nonexistent for several years.

In 2005, however, 657 people applied for refugee status and only 46 were recognized. New Zealand, which lies ever farther from any continent, recognized 210 out of 665 applicants. In the same year, the U.S. recognized 19,766 asylum-seekers out of 39,240 applicants.

What are the procedures for asylum-seekers to be granted refugee status in Japan?

Each asylum-seeker must apply to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau. They are interviewed by bureau officials and can submit any documents to prove they are in danger of persecution in their country.

Amnesty International Japan claims the government often does not give refugee status if an applicant fails to provide sufficient proof to back up the claim. Amnesty notes it is often difficult for people to give hard evidence they are in danger in their home countries because they are often forced to flee for their lives and can carry no evidence.

What is the new “provisional stay” system and how does it work?

The provisional stay system was introduced under the 2004 revision of the refugee recognition law to give asylum-seekers temporary legal status until a final decision is made over their bid.

Before the system was introduced, if asylum-seekers overstayed their visas or entered Japan illegally, deportation procedures were started parallel to their application for refugee status. This made asylum-seekers vulnerable to arbitrary detention. In some cases, a visa overstayer, illegally employed, would take years to come forward to seek refugee status, thus seriously jeopardizing the chances for recognition.

The provisional stay now gives asylum-seekers a three-month permit to stay if they apply for refugee status within six months of entering Japan. The permit can be renewed repeatedly until the final decision and all deportation procedures will be suspended till then.

The new system also introduced “refugee examination counselors” who can go over the cases and advise the justice minister on whether the applicants should be granted refugee status. As of December, 19 professionals, including former prosecutors and judges, lawyers, professors and journalists, have been appointed as counselors.

According to the ministry, out of the 721 asylum-seekers who applied for the “provisional stay,” only 16 percent, or 122, were granted the status. Those so granted, however, are not allowed to work.

How long does the whole process to gain refugee status take?

The ministry refuses to comment, saying it has not taken any data.

Human rights organizations said there are too many different cases to give an average, but it took about nine months to over three years for those granted refugee status.

For those first-time applicants who were rejected by the minister, it takes a lot longer because of the appeal system and then the administrative lawsuits that follow to have the decision revoked.

How do asylum-seekers make ends meet?

For most, life in Japan is not easy. Because most of them are not allowed to work, they seek support from organizations such as the government-affiliated Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ).

RHQ’s limited budget, however, makes it difficult for asylum-seekers to receive financial support. So many are forced to work illegally. Most end up doing manual labor, working at construction sites or restaurants.

How do nonprofit organizations help asylum-seekers?

The nonprofit group Japan Association for Refugees offers comprehensive assistance, from financial support to legal advice, for both asylum-seekers and recognized refugees. But Eri Ishikawa of JAR said the group’s emergency fund for asylum-seekers and refugees — based solely on donations — is about empty.

Do asylum-seekers have health insurance?

They don’t have health insurance unless they have legal resident status for over a year. Their medical bills could sometimes be millions of yen. JAR’s Ishikawa said there is a doctor who gives free medical advice to asylum-seekers between 2 and 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Friday of every month at Catholic Tokyo International Center in Shinagawa Ward.

What are the rights and obligations of asylum-seekers once they are granted refugee status?

Once granted the status, in most cases, the refugee gets long-term resident status. The term is one to three years, and like other foreigners living in Japan, refugees must get their permits renewed.

Other rights and obligations are basically the same for refugees and other foreigners living in Japan. They can join health insurance programs and must pay taxes. Because refugees in most cases no longer have valid passports, however, they will need to get a special refugee travel document issued by the Immigration Bureau.

The renewable permit is valid for one year, and the refugee will be free to leave and enter Japan as many times as desired.

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