National / Social Issues

Refugee recognition is overly slow, opaque, panel tells Justice Ministry

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan should clarify the criteria it uses to recognize refugees and set up safeguards to protect vulnerable applicants who fall short of the definition, an advisory panel told the Justice Ministry on Friday.

The panel, made up of outside experts, also called for tougher measures to deter fraudulent applications.

The proposals will serve as a basis for an immigration policy review the ministry aims to complete by the end of this fiscal year. It also represents an end to the panel’s year-long deliberations on the refugee system, which is widely criticized for its slow screening and high rate of rejection.

In 2013 Japan granted only six people refugee status.

Meanwhile, a related but separate committee tasked with reviewing immigration policy as a whole also presented its report to Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa on Friday.

The committee’s recommendations include attracting more exchange students and highly skilled foreign professionals. It also called on the nation to straighten out a state-backed foreign traineeship program that has been denounced as exploitative, and to step up a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

The committee called on Japan to increase transparency of the criteria used for recognizing refugees, and align them with global standards such as those codified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If realized, the proposal could broaden the nation’s narrow perception of what constitutes a refugee in need of help.

It also urged the state to offer the equivalent of what is known in Europe as subsidiary protection to those who do not meet the U.N.-designated refugee definition but who might face a grave risk of persecution if repatriated.

Japan has customarily offered such individuals tentative residence permits, from what it calls a “humanitarian perspective.” However, there is no clear guideline as to what conditions qualify for such permits, and sole authority rests with the justice minister to decide on a case-by-case basis.

The proposal, therefore, recommends that Japan grant nontraditional asylum seekers subsidiary protection based on objective criteria.

One panel member, lawyer Shogo Watanabe, hailed the clarification of refugee recognition criteria as a step forward. However, he expressed dissatisfaction with the report’s lack of details on how a subsidiary protection system might be set up.

“The proposal doesn’t exactly spell out under what circumstances one can qualify for such protection and how much more effective the protection is going to be than the current (humanitarian) framework,” he said.

The panel also agreed on the need to beef up protections against an influx of what it called “inappropriate” applications. Specifically, it pushes for prioritizing asylum seekers based on the credibility of their testimony before referring them to a regular screening process, in a bid to identify those most likely to be genuine refugees.

Japan has in recent years seen a spike in applications due partly to a policy shift in 2010 that made any asylum seekers with a legitimate visa status at the time of their application unconditionally eligible for full-time worker status.

Although introduced to help cash-strapped applicants better survive the two to three years their cases usually take, the policy change has had an unexpected downside.

Since 2010, applications from legitimate visa-holders, such as exchange students and technical interns, have surged: Out of the 3,260 people who applied for refugee status in 2013, a whopping 2,404 were found to be legitimate visa holders, nearly a fourfold increase from 668 in 2010. Some of the applicants presented barely believable cases, while others acknowledged openly their motive was pecuniary, the panel said.

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