The number of foreign people who applied for refugee status hit a record high of 10,901 last year, up 44 percent from the previous year, the Justice Ministry said Friday.
Indonesians topped the list.
In 2016 Japan only accepted 28 refugees, an increase of only one from the previous year.
Ministry officials said they believe many of the applicants are migrant workers who try to stay longer and earn higher wages here by filing refugee status applications, rather than people seeking political asylum.
Still, the acceptance of just 28 refugees in 2016 is likely to fuel criticism of Japan’s reluctance to accept asylum seekers. Many European countries are dealing with a flood of refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.
Of the 28, seven were from Afghanistan, four from Ethiopia, three from Eritrea and two from Bangladesh, the ministry said.
In addition to the 28 granted refugee status in Japan, 97 were allowed to stay “for humanitarian reasons” though they were not recognized as refugees, the ministry said.
The ministry attributed the sharp surge in applicants mainly to an increase from Southeast Asian countries, in particular Indonesia and the Philippines. Japan recently eased visa conditions for the two countries.
According to a ministry official, “a considerable number” of those applicants requested refugee status for economic reasons.
By nationality, applicants from Indonesia surged to 1,829 in 2016 from 969 the previous year. The second-highest number — 1,451 — came from Nepal, followed by 1,412 Filipinos, 1,143 Turks, 1,072 Vietnamese, 938 Sri Lankans, 650 Myanmarese, 470 Indians, 318 Cambodians and 289 Pakistanis.
Officially, despite its rapidly shrinking population, Japan has not accepted unskilled workers.
But it has introduced a category under which a large number of unskilled workers — known as “trainees” — have been allowed to enter, and Japan also allows those here with student visas to work up to 28 hours per week.
Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times largely agreed that many migrant workers apply for refugee status simply because they want to stay to work longer in Japan. An applicant can start working six months after they file an application, and it often takes a few years before the immigration bureau decides whether to grant the applicant refugee status.
But, at the same time, those experts have emphasized that Japan has accepted too few refugees in comparison with other developed countries.
According to Reuters, Germany received 745,545 asylum applications last year and approved over 256,000 requests in 2016.
“While Japan is a strong Asian democracy, it is not showing global ethical leadership on human rights,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch, in a press statement last month.
“Japan remains closed to thousands of asylum seekers, including Syrians, while those who do make it to Japan rarely have their refugee status recognized.”
Yukie Osa, president of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization helping refugees, also agreed Japan has accepted too few refugees.
Osa, meanwhile, pointed out a majority of applicants in Japan are believed to be males who were able to arrive in Japan by airplane.
Tokyo should actively accept refugees currently enduring severe conditions overseas, such as those in refugee camps in Syria, including women and children, who have no means of coming to Japan on their own, Osa argued.
According to the ministry, only 69 Syrian citizens sought refugee status in Japan from 2011 through 2016. To file, one first needs to come to Japan.
“We have to think about measures other than just screening applicants in Japan. Otherwise, the number of refugees to be recognized won’t greatly increase,” she said.
Osa, a professor of politics and international relations at Rikkyo University, also agrees with the view that many of the applicants are migrant workers attempting to stay here longer.
She pointed out that the nationalities of the applicants in Japan do not match the global refugee trends as reported by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in its annual report.
This is a possible indication hat many of the applicants in Japan may be migrant workers and not political asylum seekers. “But you can’t tell how much such (migrant workers) account for,” Osa said.
The United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees obliges member countries to protect refugees who could be persecuted for political reasons if they return to their home countries.
Japan strictly interprets the convention and often demands that applicants submit material evidence to back up assertions on their political status. This stance has drawn criticism from human rights activists from both at home and abroad.