Japan saw record number of refugee applicants in 2017, Justice Ministry says

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

The number of people who applied for refugee status in Japan last year reached a record high of 19,628, up 80 percent from the previous year, the Justice Ministry announced Tuesday.

The ministry attributed the surge in refugee applications to a rise in economic immigrants — what the government calls those who apply for refugee status to land jobs in Japan.

The latest figure was an increase of 8,727 from 2016, when the number stood at 10,901 — the first time it topped 10,000.

“Information has been spreading that foreign people could start working six months after filing out an application while waiting for (the ministry’s) decision on whether to grant them refugee status,” the Immigration Bureau’s Tetsuro Isobe said.

Of the total number of last year’s applicants, who came to Japan from 82 countries, only 20 — mainly from Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan — were given refugee status. Others fled Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, India and Pakistan, among other places.

Japan allowed a further 45 individuals to stay in Japan based on humanitarian grounds. Among them were people from Syria, Myanmar and Iraq determined to be unable to return to their home countries out of fear of political persecution.

The ministry also rejected 9,730 applications.

By nationality, Filipinos accounted for the largest group of applicants — 4,895 — followed by 3,116 Vietnamese, the latest data showed.

Long criticized for being reluctant to accept refugees, Japan has not officially adopted an immigration policy. But many foreign workers enter to work in Japan through the Technical Intern Training Program, which was created in response to labor shortages for low-level jobs. Currently, an estimated 230,000 people are working under the program.

Isobe, who is the director of the refugee recognition office, said an increasing number of Filipinos and Vietnamese coming to Japan as technical trainees apply for refugee status when their visas expire.

Last month, Japan revised its refugee screening process to make it easier to prevent those considered to be clearly not genuinely seeking asylum from abusing the system to land jobs.

Under the revised system, even first-time applicants could face deportation if the ministry determines they don’t meet the criteria stipulated in the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention 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.

Following the revision, the ministry stopped giving temporary work permits to applicants with student visas or under the technical intern training program.

Isobe said that “within only half a month, the daily number of applicants halved compared to the previous month.”

“This system is aimed at people who show a credible fear (of returning to their home countries) and we aim to create a system under which people who don’t qualify for refugee status won’t apply for it,” he said.