Sayaka Hirose is a Tokyo-based immigration lawyer specializing in assisting Indonesians coming to Japan. She says that in the past two years her clients have been seeking legal advice on an issue she had never encountered before.

In 2016, about 70 Indonesians asked her about matters related to work visas, and 20 of them brought up the same question: How do I obtain refugee status in Japan and legally work here?

“None of them was a refugee, in fact. For them, applying for refugee status is just a way to keep working in Japan,” Hirose said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“I explained to them that refugee visas are issued for people from countries like Iraq and Syria because they could be killed if they return there. The Indonesians said they understood this and admitted they were not refugees.

“They just want to work in Japan,” she said.

The cases Hirose has dealt with are probably just the tip of the iceberg of a growing problem for Japanese immigration authorities in recent years.

Earlier this month, the Justice Ministry announced that refugee applications had reached a record high 10,901 in 2016, a 44 percent jump from the previous year.

By nationality, applicants from Indonesia topped the list, surging to 1,829 from 969 in 2015. They numbered only 17 in 2014 and 19 in 2013.

The second-highest number of applicants in 2016 — 1,451 — came from Nepal, followed by 1,412 Filipinos, 1,143 Turks, 1,072 Vietnamese, 938 Sri Lankans, 650 from Myanmar, 470 Indians, 318 Cambodians and 289 Pakistanis.

Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times largely agree that a vast majority of the recent applicants are migrants trying to take advantage of a loophole in this nation’s convoluted and time-consuming refugee recognition procedures. They are taking this route because of Japan’s official policy of not accepting unskilled foreign workers.

Thanks to a 2010 law revision, an applicant for refugee status can start working in Japan six months after filing.

The rule change has apparently encouraged thousands of migrant workers to apply for refugee status and thereby stay longer, experts said.

“It’s obvious (that migrant workers) have abused the refugee application system, leading to the dramatic increase in the number of applicants in recent years,” Saburo Takizawa, a former representative in Japan for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a recent interview.

“That has nothing to with the recent increase in refugees in Europe,” such as those from Syria, Iraq and African countries, said Takizawa, who is now chairman of the board of the Japan Association for UNHCR, a nonprofit official fundraising agency for the U.N. refugee agency.

“Western media often criticize Japan for accepting only 28 refugees (in 2016) even though 10,000 people applied,” he said. “But they don’t examine who actually applied for refugee status in Japan.”

As Takizawa pointed out, human rights groups at home and abroad have often criticized Japan for accepting only about 20 to 30 refugees a year, when European countries have faced a flood of refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Takizawa said it is true Japan has strictly interpreted the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and he believes Japan should accept more refugees, at least 200 to 300 a year.

But he also pointed out that Japan is geographically isolated, and asylum seekers usually need to obtain visas and buy expensive air tickets to reach the country to apply for refugee status. In addition, Japan has far fewer foreign communities, in particular Arabic-speaking people.

All these factors have historically made Japan an unpopular destination for people fleeing major conflict zones, Takizawa said.

“Syrian refugees now staying in Turkey wouldn’t think of Japan as an option when they flee,” he said.

According to the Justice Ministry, only 69 Syrian citizens filed application for refugee status in Japan from 2011 through 2016. Seven were accepted as refugees and another 52 were allowed to stay for humanitarians reasons.

Meanwhile, applicants from Southeast Asia have increased dramatically in recent years. There has been no major conflict or other political developments in Asia that could drastically boost the number of political refugees, and most of the recent applicants are believed to be migrants, experts said.

In fact, refugee status applications in Japan surged after the 2010 revision of the labor law. The total jumped more than nine times from 1,202 in 2010 to 10,901 in 2016, mainly due to an increase in applicants from Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam, Turkey and the Philippines.

Hirose, like many other experts on immigration issues, also cited the Japanese government’s easing of visa conditions for Indonesian tourists in December 2014.

This has probably prompted many Indonesian men to come to Japan with a short-term visa first and thereafter apply for refugee status, Hirose said.

Most Nepalese applicants are also believed to be trying to stay and work in Japan, according to Tilak Malla, editor-in-chief of editor-in-chief of Samudrapari.com, a Japan-based Nepalese-language news website.

“The door is closed, but a window is opened. That’s why many (Nepalese) try to enter” by filing refugee status applications, he said in a recent interview.

Malla, also the head of the Japan chapter of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, said the political situation in Nepal has been relatively stable in recent years and not likely to create such a large number of refugees coming to Japan.

“When they become unable to renew their visa because of some trouble, they tend to resort to applying for refugee status,” he said.

Malla also said that through word of mouth, it is now widely known among Nepalese coming to Japan that an applicant for refugee status can legally start working in Japan six months after filing the application.

According to the World Bank, Japan’s per capita gross national income was $38,840 in 2015, which is 53.2 times bigger than that of Nepal, 11.29 times that of Indonesia and 10.9 times that of the Philippines, meaning migrant workers from those countries can earn far higher wages in Japan than in their own countries.

On the other hand, many small firms and farmers in Japan, in particular those in rural areas, are facing an acute labor shortage as Japan’s working population shrinks.

The combination of those “push” and “pull” factors is why Japan keeps drawing migrant workers from other parts of Asia, said Takizawa of the Japan Association for UNHCR.

Still, Japan has maintained its official immigration policy of not accepting unskilled workers, while in fact the government, catering to the demands of Japanese companies, has introduced thousands of migrant workers every year in the guise of “trainees” and “students,” Takizawa said.

“I don’t think it’s fair to blame applicants only as ‘fake refugees’ because Japan’s immigration policy itself is fake,” he said.

Masako Tanaka, an associate professor at Sophia University and an expert on South Asian studies, said Nepalese workers are in general very diligent and much welcomed by Japanese firms, in particular in such areas as Gunma and Tochigi prefectures.

Still, those with student visas are not allowed to work more than 28 hours a week, because officially they’re allowed to stay in Japan only to study.

Many Nepalese students, who accounted for 61.2 percent of the 52,770 Nepalese working in Japan last year, are frustrated about this limit, Tanaka said.

“(Nepalese) understand well that Japan indeed needs workers like them. And they have built up a very good relationship with Japanese at their workplace,” she said.

“If Japan does need laborers, Japan should give them a work permit with conditions equivalent to those for Japanese workers,” she said, adding that Japan’s official immigration policy “is totally out of touch with reality.”

Giving Asian migrant workers a proper working visa would be the best and quickest solution to reduce those applying for refugee status, Tanaka said.

She meanwhile said she believes some of those applicants, although few in number, are real asylum seekers who need protection in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention, not migrants trying to stay longer in Japan for high-wage jobs.

The Refugee Convention obliges member countries to protect asylum seekers who could be persecuted for political, religious or other discriminatory reasons should they return to their home country. People fleeing due to economic reasons are technically not covered by the convention.

Takizawa said Japan has strictly interpreted the convention. He said Japan should ease its literal interpretation and actively try to usher in refugees while they are still overseas, and not just wait for such people to show up in Japan.

But Takizawa, who served from 2002 to 2006 in Geneva as the chief financial officer for UNHCR, also said it is probably far more important for Japan to bolster its financial contributions to international aid organizations such as UNHCR to help refugees and internally displaced people overseas.

For a developed country to accept and assist one refugee, it costs about $10,000 a year on average, according to Takizawa.

“You can save the lives of 30 or 40 people at a refugee camp overseas by using the same amount of money as accepting one refugee in Japan,” he said.

“I, as a former financial chief of UNHCR, cannot help but think that way,” Takizawa said.

He said Japan’s large financial contributions to UNHCR and other international aid organizations have saved “millions of refugees,” and Tokyo should maintain that contribution policy.

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