/

Japan recognizes only 27 refugees, despite rising numbers of applications

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The number of people who filed applications for asylum in 2015 jumped nearly 50 percent to a record 7,586, but the government recognized only 27 refugees, the Justice Ministry said Friday.

Lobbyists for the interests of asylum seekers condemned the rejection of those who may have fled persecution or violence, saying it marks a stark contrast with the policies of other developed nations.

“In Germany, the number of applicants last year was 1.1 million, and about half of them are expected to stay,” Eri Ishikawa, Chair of the Board of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), said.

“Japan has been criticized as a country that pays money but is closed for refugees,” she added.

The preliminary figure for 2015 was the fifth consecutive year of increase in the number of applicants, according to the ministry.

In 2014, Japan had 5,000 applicants and granted refugee status to 11.

People of 69 nationalities applied for asylum in 2015. Nepalese represented the largest group at 1,768, followed by Indonesians at 969, Turks at 926, and nationals of Myanmar at 808. The top 10 are all Asian countries.

In addition to the 27 given refugee status, the government granted 79 individuals temporary permission to reside in Japan out of “humanitarian consideration,” the ministry said.

Immigration Bureau of Japan official Saori Fujita said the steep rise was due to an increase in the number of Indonesian applicants. A mere 17 Indonesians applied in 2014, compared to 969 applicants last year.

This was due to the introduction of a visa waiver system for Indonesian tourists in December 2014 and a subsequent surge in the number of travelers from there, she said. Activists noted that the number of recognitions was up slightly, but decried Japan’s reluctance over refugees.

“The number of people who are granted refugee (status) is still extremely few,” lamented Ishikawa of the JAR.

Critics point to a lack of clarity over the criteria Japan holds applicants to as it screens claims. The process is thought to be rigorous — but it is also notoriously slow.

To speed up the operation — and to filter out bogus applicants more quickly — the ministry in September shook up how it handles applications.

But the increase has outstripped the government’s efforts to keep up, Ishikawa said, adding that numbers may rise even further as the government pursues the tourist dollar by relaxing visa requirements further. Numbers have spiked since 2010, when the government made it possible for asylum seekers to work full time while awaiting the result of their application — as long as they held a valid visa at the time of application.

Asked whether Japan would join other countries in accepting Syrian refugees, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters at the U.N. General Assembly last September that Japan needs to improve conditions for its own citizens first, singling out women and the elderly as areas of concern before tackling the issue of refugees.