Japan toughens screening rules for refugees; automatic work permits ditched

by Daisuke Kikuchi and Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writers

The Justice Ministry announced on Friday a set of new measures to toughen its refugee screening processes as it attempts to crack down on what it sees as a flood of unskilled laborers in Asia who abuse the system to land jobs in Japan.

All applicants with a valid visa status are given a work permit six months after applying, followed by a lengthy screening process to be recognized as refugees. Until the final judgment, applicants are allowed to work in Japan.

The ministry said it will abolish the work permit starting Monday, claiming it has been abused by numerous immigrant workers whose real goal is to work in Japan for longer periods.

Under the new rules, the ministry will divide applicants into three categories and quickly give work permits to those deemed highly likely to be recognized as refugees.

Meanwhile, those who cite reasons that the ministry says do not fit a 1951 refugee convention could face deportation, officials said.

These include people who seek refugee status simply to land jobs and those who appear to be fleeing financial trouble, the ministry said.

The U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 defines refugees as individuals who possess a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

The government strictly interprets this convention and does not accept applicants who cite only economic difficulties. Those who apply for refugee status three times without legitimate grounds are liable to be deported or sent to a detention center.

But under the new rules, some first-time applicants could face deportation if the ministry determines they don’t meet the criteria stipulated in the 1951 convention.

The ministry also will no longer give temporary work permits to those who come to Japan with student visas or as part of the technical intern program — and then apply for refugee status when those visas expire.

The Justice Ministry claims the new rules were drawn up to help quickly identify those who are truly in need under the 1951 convention, because a flood of job-seekers abusing the system has considerably delayed the screening system for other applicants.

But Eri Ishikawa, board chair of the Japan Association for Refugees, fears that toughening conditions for work permits sought by those seeking refugee status may especially hurt those facing financial strain.

“In order for them to survive, they will desperately need financial support or work permission,” she said.

Some legitimate political asylum-seekers come to Japan with student or technical trainee visas. The new rules would make it even more difficult for them to gain refugee status, he said.

Meanwhile, Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer who heads the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, doubts that the Immigration Bureau, overseen by the Justice Ministry, has enough manpower to quickly categorize numerous applicants and determine who needs protection under the 1951 convention.

In 2016, the Justice Ministry saw a record high 10,901 apply for refugee status. Of that figure, Japan granted the status to only 28 individuals, saying the rest did not meet standards set by the 1951 convention.

The ministry says that in the first nine months of 2017, only 29 applicants were from countries considered a major source of refugees, such as Syria, while the largest portion came from the Philippines, followed by Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Nepal.

Applicants are informed of their results within 9.9 months on average, figures show, and the appeal process takes nearly two years.