Last year, Japan granted refugee status to just 20 out of a record-high 19,629 applicants. After the figure was released in February, global and domestic coverage was noticeably polarized.

Some slammed Japan’s strict asylum policy, saying that the world’s third-largest economy has failed to meet its responsibilities as a signatory of the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Others, however, maintained that the majority of the applicants are “fake refugees,” or migrant workers who just tried to abuse an apparent loophole in the refugee application system to get a special work permit in Japan.

Which is true? Experts say there may be some truth to both, given the complex reality surrounding the refugee status applicants in Japan. Here’s a closer look at the controversial refugee screening system and recent spike in asylum applications.

What is the definition of a refugee and how do they differ from migrants?

A refugee, according to the U.N. convention, “is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Migrants, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are people “who choose to move, not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunification, or other reasons.”

Thus by definition, migrants, unlike refugees, would not face persecution from their government if they return to their home countries.

The Justice Ministry says most of those applying for refugee status in Japan are not real refugees but migrant workers trying to abuse the nation’s asylum system. Is this true?

Probably. Experts agree many applicants are simply low-skilled foreign workers who see labor shortages as a job opportunity.

Japan basically bans nonprofessional foreign laborers from staying and working in the nation, except for those arriving for state-backed special trainee programs or on a student visa.

This strict immigration policy has apparently prompted thousands of migrant workers every year to apply for refugee status, to secure special work permits in Japan.

In fact, the number of refugee applicants — mostly from Southeast Asia — has surged since 2010, when the Justice Ministry introduced a new refugee application system that provided a work permit for any refugee applicant with a valid visa six months after they submitted an application.

Since that system came into effect, the number of asylum applicants from Indonesia, for example, has surged from 19 in 2013 to 2,038 in 2017.

The top five home countries for applicants last year were the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Indonesia. These accounted for 70 percent of total applications.

To stop the flood of migrant job-seekers, the Justice Ministry in January decided to grant work permits only to applicants deemed after two months of preliminary screening as highly likely to be recognized as refugees.

Applicants who cite a reason for seeking asylum that does not fall under the definition for refugee status now face immediate deportation, or be taken to a detention center.

But Japan accepts only about 20 to 30 refugees every year, which looks unusually small compared with other Western countries. How are refugee status applicants screened?

The Justice Ministry says it gives refugee status to anyone who falls under the convention’s definition.

However, human right groups have criticized Japan for what they say is an excessively strict interpretation of the meaning of “persecution” under the refugee convention.

UNHCR refugee guidelines describe persecution as threats to life or freedom on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — as well as other serious violations of human rights.

But according to the Justice Ministry’s interpretation, “persecution” refers only to threats to life and limb, the ministry has maintained.

“Japan grants refugee status only to those who would be killed for sure or be imprisoned if they returned home,” said Saburo Takizawa, a former representative in Japan for the UNHCR.

Takizawa, now a professor at Toyo Eiwa University, argues that the Justice Ministry should set an annual numerical goal for the number of refugees granted asylum in Japan.

“Twenty accepted refugees are just a drop in the ocean. The Justice Ministry should give refugee status to 200 at least, and issue special work permits based on humanitarian grounds to 2,000,” said Takizawa.

Are there other apparent problems with refugee screening?

The nation is also said to be placing a heaving burden of proof on applicants.

According to UNHCR guidelines — given that in most cases asylum-seekers are forced to flee, fearing for their lives, with no time to gather evidence — applicants whose accounts appear credible are not required to prove all the facts in making their case for refugee status.

However, the Justice Ministry usually demands that applicants submit objective evidence to prove they are in danger of persecution, such as wanted posters or ID from an organization they belonged to.

For those hastily fleeing their country, however, it is often difficult to carry such hard evidence to Japan, human right activists say.

Are there standardized refugee screening procedures for member countries of the U.N. convention?

No. The convention lays out the definition and rights of refugees and the responsibilities of refugee-accepting countries that have signed the convention, but does not stipulate what criteria should be used to judge whether applicants are refugees.

Qualifications for refugee status differ in each country, and are often changed when national policies change, according to Takizawa of Toyo Eiwa University.

How does Japan’s application system work?

Asylum-seekers need to apply to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau. The applicants are then interviewed by bureau officials.

Ministry officials make a judgment based on those interviews and the documents submitted by the applicants to prove they are in danger of persecution.

The refugee screening process in Japan took 9.9 months on average last year, and 23.4 months for applicants who were turned down and appealed their decisions.

Applicants can appeal if their application is rejected. After registering an appeal, refugee examination counselors — authorities such as lawyers, scholars and ex-ambassadors who are specialized in international affairs and have been designated by the Justice Ministry, perform screening.

They then issue an opinion on whether the appeal should be accepted to the justice minister, who will make the final decision.

Applicants whose appeal is rejected by the minister can bring the matter to court.

To date, 132 people whose first applications had been rejected by the Justice Ministry have since been granted refugee status after appeal.

What happens to applicants if their application is rejected?

Most receive a deportation order if their visa expires, regardless of whether they have reapplied for refugee status.

Those who were issued a deportation order are either held at a detention center run by the Justice Ministry or given “provisional release” by the immigration bureau, temporarily allowing them to stay outside of the detention center.

However, they have to post a bond of up to ¥3 million to be released and must stay within a certain designated area.

In some cases, without issuing a deportation order, the Justice Ministry gives a “special resident permit,” citing “humanitarian reasons.”

The permit is given to those the ministry does not believe face fear of persecution but need a place to temporarily escape from an armed conflict.

The status allows them to legally stay in Japan. Last year, 45 applicants were granted the permit.
However, unlike those granted refugee status, people with special resident status are not eligible to receive any assistance from the government with language skills or job-hunting.

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