Ahead of World Refugee Day on Thursday, attention has been turning to just how well Japan — the world’s third-biggest economy — has been fulfilling its responsibilities as a signatory of the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention this year.

Justice Ministry data shows Japan, a country known for its strict refugee screening process, has granted refugee status to 42 asylum-seekers so far in 2019 — a figure that is double that of last year. This increase has been welcomed by refugee support groups, but critics have noted that the overall refugee acceptance rate is still very low and the core issues have not been resolved.

The government has maintained that the majority of the applicants are “fake refugees” who are attempting to use their application status to get work permits, which the government had previously issued unconditionally six months after a person applied for asylum. The government restricted that system in January last year.

After the revision, the number of applications drastically dropped by 47 percent to 10,493 applications this year. In short, only about 1 in 250 applicants, on average, is granted refugee status, according to the ministry data. By comparison, Canada, which has a robust program for accepting refugees, accepted 14,790 of 55,388 applications in 2018 — or about 1 in 4.

Critics say the low refugee acceptance rate is partly attributable to Japan’s strict interpretation of “persecution,” which guidelines by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes 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 human rights violations.”

However, according to the Justice Ministry’s interpretation, “persecution” refers only to threats to life and limb.

Aside from the refugee acceptance system, the government has announced the expansion of its resettlement program — accepting refugees who are staying in an asylum country — and is reportedly aiming to double the number of those taken from 30 to 60 annually, possibly starting in 2020.

The envisioned review of the program is expected to accelerate refugee resettlement in rural areas, with a Foreign Ministry official saying the government is “actively studying” the possibility of selecting locations other than the Tokyo metropolitan area, news agencies Kyodo and Jiji have reported.

“Using this expansion of resettlement as an opportunity, we hope that discussions over the refugee application system will develop and the refugee application system will be revised upwards,” the Japan Association for Refugees said in a statement.

According to a study published by the UNHCR on Wednesday, the number of forcibly displaced persons reached 70.8 million in 2018, up 2.3 million from the previous year — the highest recorded in the last 70 years. This figure surpasses the entire population of Thailand.

The UNHCR will light up 15 towers and monuments across Japan in blue — from the Tokyo Skytree to the Sapporo TV Tower in Hokkaido — to raise awareness on World Refugee Day.

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