Asylum seekers hit record high exceeding 2,600

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

At the end of October, there were more than 2,600 asylum seekers in Japan, a record high, the Japan Association for Refugees said Wednesday.

Their numbers are only likely to increase in the coming months, said JAR Executive Director Hiroaki Ishii, who noted the current figure only reflects the people the association has managed to keep track of itself. Ishii predicts more than 3,000 will seek asylum by the end of year.

When contacted by The Japan Times, the Justice Ministry, which keeps a tally of asylum seekers, declined to confirm JAR’s data or divulge their nationalities.

It’s not clear why there’s been a surge in asylum seekers, Ishii said. Most enter Japan on tourist or temporary visitor visas, so the number tends to shoot up whenever Japan hosts a major international event, such as the World Cup. But there have been no such events this year.

According to Justice Ministry statistics, there were 2,545 asylum seekers in 2012, the highest number since 1982, when Japan officially opened its door to them.

In the past three years, the number of foreigners seeking refugee status here has surged, but the association is unsure why, Ishii said, though they speculate it’s the economy. Buoyed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” policies, Japan’s recovery coupled with the yen’s steady depreciation of late stand in stark contrast to the financial troubles in Europe.

Ishii also noted the anti-immigrant sentiment prevailing in Western countries. Earlier this year in a district of Stockholm with a high proportion of immigrants, disgruntled youths waged violent riots that the media blamed, at least in part, on a lack of employment opportunities.

“Compared with Japan, Sweden is actually much better when it comes to accepting asylum seekers,” Ishii said. “But to those who don’t know (the situation here), Japan might have looked like a better place to go to because, at least, we don’t have such riots yet.”

Insularity characterizes Japan’s attitude toward asylum seekers. In 2012, only 18 were granted refugee status, the fewest in nearly a decade. The largest group by nationality of the 2,545 asylum seekers that year was Turks, at 16 percent, owing in part to Turkey’s Reciprocal Visa Exemption Agreement with Japan, while 14 percent were from Myanmar and 12 percent from Nepal.

Asylum seekers typically have to wait two to three months to become eligible for housing and medical assistance from the government, during which time many often wind up homeless, Ishii said.

JAR says its office receives around 100 calls a month from asylum seekers grappling with extreme poverty.

“We often find asylum seekers lined up in the hallway waiting when we arrive at the office. Some spent the night here,” Ishii said.