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Four Syrian asylum seekers to sue for refugee status

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Four asylum seekers from conflict-ridden Syria will soon initiate a lawsuit against the central government to seek official refugee status, the first from their nation to do so, a lawyer said Monday.

The unprecedented move comes amid mounting calls by experts for a root-and-branch overhaul of Japan’s notoriously opaque, insular and slow-paced refugee system.

It also reflects simmering frustration among asylum seekers from Syria over Japan’s dogged refusal to grant them refugee status.

The plaintiffs are four men aged 21 to 35 who fled to Japan in 2012. Shortly after their arrival, each applied for refugee status, citing their participation in pro-democracy protests against the Syrian regime.

All were denied refugee status in early 2013, however, and have since been granted tentative residence permits out of what the government terms a “humanitarian perspective,” said lawyer Mitsuru Nanba.

“We believe the lawsuit will not only help save the Syrian asylum seekers but also serve as a counterweight to Japan’s overly rigorous refugee recognition system,” Nanba said.

The group plans to officially file the lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court early next week.

Under the tentative residence permits, the four Syrians are currently granted a designated activities visa status that requires renewal every year.

Asylum seekers who hold this visa are unlikely to be repatriated unless the situation back home improves dramatically, Nanba said, adding these individuals are also eligible to join a national health program and to work full time.

Still, the requirement of annual renewal points to the instability of their legal status, the lawyer said.

Furthermore, unlike certified refugees, those on tentative permits are excluded from assistance measures offered by the government to help them settle in, such as Japanese-language education and help finding a job.

Syria’s ongoing conflict, prompted by the Arab Spring pro-democracy revolutions that began in 2011, has forced more than 3 million Syrian to seek asylum all over the world.

As of last November, 61 Syrians had found their way to Japan, but none was recognized as a refugee. Of the total, 45 were reportedly been granted tentative residence permits.

In countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia, over 90 percent of asylum seekers from Syria were certified as refugees in 2013, Nanba said.