Only six asylum seekers accepted by Japan in 2013

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Just six asylum seekers were granted refugee status by the government last year, the lowest number in 15 years, the Justice Ministry said Thursday, as experts and refugee supporters expressed outrage over what they say is yet another testament to Japan’s insularity.

Out of the six, three were turned down in the initial interview process and had to re-apply. By nationality, three of the six were identified as coming from Myanmar.

Immigration authorities dealt with 3,777 cases in 2013, including re-applications. The refugee recognition rate stood at a meager 0.16 percent. This compares with the 0.6 percent in 2012.

Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers shot to a record 3,260, the most since 1982, when the current refugee system was established. By nationality, Turks were the most common at 658, followed by Nepalese at 544 and Myanmarese at 380. Out of the total, 2,404 applied for refugee status as legitimate visa holders.

Though the number of asylum seekers has continued to rise over the past few years, the exact reason for the surge is not known. An immigration official offered the explanation Thursday that the rise is perhaps because Japan’s refugee system has grown increasingly known worldwide.

Of the recognition rate, the official said: “We just did what we were supposed to do in scrutinizing applicants and deciding whether they would qualify for the standard criteria. Nothing more.”

Eri Ishikawa, secretary-general of the Japan Association for Refugees, described the rate as “much lower than we expected,” suggesting it even posed a threat to the legitimacy of her organization’s existence.

“Seeing how determined the government looks to turn down the asylum seekers, I’m not even sure if we could tell the world Japan accepts them at all,” said Ishikawa, adding it was the first time since her group’s 1999 founding that the number of recognized refugees had fallen below 10.

“It just makes us feel powerless and speechless,” she said, noting the group intends to officially express its “stronger than ever” disappointment over the issue.

The number of foreign residents in Japan, meanwhile, hit 2.06 million in 2013, up 1.6 percent from a year earlier, turning upward for the first time since 2008, at the outbreak of the global financial crisis. The number had trended downward, particularly in the wake of the 2011 triple disasters that devastated the Tohoku region.