UNHCR chief praises asylum system’s meaningful progress


Japan’s acceptance of asylum-seekers has made meaningful progress, including its serving as a trial “third country” in a United Nations-promoted trial resettlement program, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Thursday in Tokyo.

Speaking at the Japan National Press Club in Chiyoda Ward, Guterres noted Japan has accepted more asylum-seekers and granted more special residence permits on humanitarian grounds.

“Since my last visit one year ago, it is important to say that we are witnessing very meaningful, positive progress in the Japanese asylum system,” Guterres said. “The Justice Ministry and the Immigration Bureau have been consistently improving refugee status determination in Japan.”

Japan has long been criticized for not allowing significant numbers of refugees to stay despite being a signatory member of the 1951 U.N. Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Most recognized refugees here are from Myanmar.

According to Immigration Bureau data, the number of people given protection as refugees or special residents rose from 87 in 2006 to 531 last year. But the growth was mainly due to the special residency resipients. Those given refugee status remained low, falling to 30 in 2009 from 34 in 2006.

While those recognized as refugees came mainly from Myanmar, there were also asylum-seekers from seven other countries, including Iran and Afghanistan, the ministry said.

“There is remarkable recent progress — protection is now being granted to larger numbers and not only to Myanmar refugees,” Guterres stressed.

On his seventh visit to Japan as UNHCR chief, Guterres met not only with government officials but also with five Myanmar families who arrived in Tokyo in September as part of the resettlement program. Japan is set to accept about 90 from Myanmar under the pilot program over the next three years.

The ethnic Karen families arrived in September from a refugee camp in Thailand near the Myanmar border. Guterres said the families were full of gratitude and hope for a new future, but also shocked to be brought to one of the “most vibrant, urban environments you can find in the world.”

“If you live in a refugee camp where you are not allowed to move, where you are not allowed to work, you have no future, no perspective,” Guterres said. “To have the chance to come to a country like Japan and to find a new life . . . it is something that represents extraordinary change and it is a fantastic opportunity.”