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Bills to tighten controls on foreign residents will probably increase the hardships faced by applicants for refugee status, Amnesty International Japan’s refugee officer, Tomoko Ishii, told The Japan Times recently.

The bills, which make it easier for the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau to crack down on illegal residents, will greatly impact refugee applicants, many of whom overstay their visas or hold jobs despite having nonworking visas. Meanwhile, the bills do little to improve applicants’ chances of being granted refugee status, Ishii said.

“It is unclear how many of them will be able to continue to stay,” said Ishii, who has joined other activist groups to protest the bills.

The bills, which are likely to be enacted as the three largest parties in the Diet have agreed on them, will enable the justice minister, who supervises the Immigration Bureau, to take over from municipalities the management of foreigners’ personal information, including name, address and visa expiration date. The new centralized system will make it easier for the bureau to detect those who stay beyond the expiration of their visas.

Under the present system, many municipalities knowingly issue alien registration cards to illegal residents so they can send them notice of various public services, including public school enrollment and medical services available for children and pregnant women.

Under the new legislation, however, illegal residents will not be registered by any government bodies and therefore municipalities will have difficulty making sure they are notified of such public services.

According to Ishii, about 2,000 foreign residents, mainly from Myanmar, have applications pending for refugee status, and about half are thought to be here illegally.

They typically become illegal residents because they work with a temporary nonworking visa provided by the justice minister, said Myo Min Htut Michael Collins of the People’s Forum on Burma, a nonprofit organization that supports refugee applicants from Myanmar.

“People who get on an airplane to escape from the junta, which wants to arrest and persecute them, normally don’t have much money, so they need to work,” said Collins, whom the government recognizes as a refugee from Myanmar. “They have no choice.”

Those applying for refugee status are given temporary permits to stay, and they must report to an immigration office every three months to renew the permit until the justice minister decides whether to grant them refugee status, said Kazuyuki Motohari, an official from the Immigration Bureau’s General Affairs Division.

But according to Ishii, it takes an average of two years from the time an application is submitted for the justice minister to grant refugee status.

If the government grants an applicant refugee status, this automatically includes permanent settler status, with or without work.

Last year, just 1.6 percent of applicants were granted refugee status, compared with the 10 percent of refugee applications that were accepted globally, according to statistics of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 2008, the justice minister received 1,599 applications for refugee status, of which 979 were from those fleeing Myanmar, 156 from Turkish nationals and 90 from Sri Lankans.

Only 57 applicants were granted refugee status last year, of whom 54 were from Myanmar. The Immigration Bureau did not disclose the nationality of the remaining three out of concern they might be identified.

“Non-Myanmar refugee applicants have almost no chance. Those who are staying illegally will probably go underground after the bills take effect,” Ishii said.

On a positive note, Ishii praised the bills for stipulating that the justice minister will not deport foreigners to their home countries if it is feared they will be persecuted. This is in line with the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 1984 and Japan joined in 1999.

The provision may make a difference, as the Immigration Bureau did not previously take the possibility of torture into account when deciding whether to deport them, said Yoshinobu Sakai, an official at the bureau’s Enforcement Division.

Of the 27,913 immigrants who were deported in 2007, 219 were from Myanmar, 195 from Turkey and 1,090 from Sri Lanka, Sakai said, citing the bureau’s statistics.

There are no statistics showing how many of those deported had applied for refugee status, he said.

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