National / Social Issues

Justice Ministry unveils eased refugee-recognition criteria but critics quick to cry foul

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan will ease its rigid criteria for recognizing people as refugees while boosting efforts to detect bogus or unqualified applicants, the Justice Ministry said Tuesday in what it is touting as a systemic overhaul.

But the plan to revamp Japan’s conservative refugee recognition system — unveiled as part of a seven-tier ministry review of immigration policy — is “completely ineffectual,” one expert said, arguing the new approach indicates the government doesn’t want to change the status quo whatsoever.

The review, which will cover everything from accepting more highly skilled non-Japanese workers and revising a government-backed foreign trainee program to cracking down harder on visa overstayers, is expected to serve as the basis of the nation’s immigration policy over the next five years.

Under the planned new policy, the ministry pledges to rectify Japan’s refugee system, saying it will “swiftly protect” victims of persecution and “properly interpret” the conditions under which someone can qualify for refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

In a bid to thwart “bogus” asylum seekers, the ministry said it will pre-screen candidates who apply repeatedly or with no valid reason, to prevent them from clogging up the normal screening process.

It will deny such individuals the current right to work full time in Japan while they await a decision by the ministry.

Japan, which recognized only 11 refugees out of thousands seeking such status last year, has long been under fire for interpreting too rigidly the U.N.-designated refugee definition, because it refuses to take into account forms of persecution that have emerged over the decades.

Under the new system, a group of legal experts and scholars who currently serve as government-appointed examiners of refugee applications will be authorized to advise the justice minister on what additional examples of persecution could be considered eligible under the 1951 definition.

As a result, a more flexible interpretation of the treaty will become possible, leading to a potential increase in the number of successful applicants, said Saori Fujita, director of the Justice Ministry’s Refugee Recognition Section.

Lawyer Shogo Watanabe, however, blasted the idea, saying the examiners are the ones who had been rejecting refugee applications under the conservative criteria.

“Why is (the) Immigration (Bureau) proposing utilizing the very people who are part of the current failing system? It’s obvious — because they don’t want to change it,” Watanabe said. “Nothing is going to change.”

The review was conducted based on recommendations submitted by a panel of outside refugee experts at the end of last year.

Watanabe, who served as one of the experts, also noted that the panel’s proposal for Japan to establish the equivalent of what is known in Europe as “subsidiary protection” — a safety-net measure offered to applicants who don’t meet the U.N.-designated refugee definition but still face a grave risk of persecution if repatriated — went unheeded.

Meanwhile, the ministry vowed to facilitate efforts to accept refugees under what is known as a resettlement program. Japan took in 86 Myanmar refugees from a refugees camp in Thailand between fiscal 2010 to 2014.

Aside from amending the refugee system, the policy review also stated that Japan will more aggressively accept those foreigners it regards as beneficial to the nation’s economic growth, such as highly skilled professionals and exchange students.

As part of its contribution to make Japan more tourist-friendly, Immigration will aim to shorten the wait at passport control points by making better use of automated gates, while simultaneously beefing up anti-terrorism efforts.

It will also strengthen cooperation with police in cracking down on visa overstayers.

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