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The incident in which four North Korean citizens who had fled from their country entered a Japanese school in Beijing and asked for asylum in Japan has posed a sobering question concerning Japan’s refugee policy. Acting on lessons from the incident at Japan’s consulate general in Shenyang last May, the Japanese and Chinese governments this time have quickly taken measures to prevent the matter from developing into a diplomatic issue.

The problem is that the Japanese government does not have a policy for dealing with ordinary people who flee from the North and seek asylum in Japan. In the latest case, officials concerned reportedly favor granting the four persons asylum in South Korea. Because the number of such asylum seekers is expected to increase, however, the government should promptly establish policies for accepting such refugees, including procedures for recognizing refugees.

Since early last year, there have been several cases of asylum seekers rushing into foreign diplomatic establishments and foreign schools in China, but this is the first time that a Japanese school has been involved. The Japanese school in question is a quasi-diplomatic facility attached to the Japanese embassy. Japan and China, however, have confirmed that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which recognizes diplomatic immunity and the extraterritorial status of government establishments, does not apply to the school. Immediately after the incident, therefore, the embassy moved the four persons to the embassy.

According to an explanation by an embassy official, the embassy had talked with the school about the possibility of asylum seekers entering the institution. The speedy response this time to prevent China’s intervention stemmed from reflection on last year’s incident and indicates that the lesson was properly learned. Japan and China are discussing what to do with the four people, but so far China does not appear to have protested to Japan. Usually, China considers people who have fled from North Korea to be illegal entrants and forcibly deports them. In the case of successful dashes by asylum seekers into foreign diplomatic establishments, in the end it recognizes asylum in South Korea or elsewhere via a third country.

Japan and China have been continuing consular talks on asylum seekers since the Shenyang incident. The official return to Japan in January of a Japanese woman who had lived in North Korea for decades with her Korean husband suggests that the consultations on the smooth handling of such matters are making progress. The special feature of the latest case is that the four persons requested asylum in Japan from the very beginning. Immediately after they entered the school, a nongovernmental organization that supports the four persons sent a statement to the Japanese government calling for recognition of their refugee status. It has actually been speculated that the NGO had them enter the Japanese school in order to press the Japanese government to revise its refugee policy. Japan ratified the refugee convention in 1981, but it remains negative toward the acceptance of refugees. According to the Ministry of Justice, 2,782 persons applied for recognition as refugees between 1982 and the end of last year, but only 305 persons received recognition.

Procedures under the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law are complex, too. In order to request recognition of refugee status, a person has to enter Japan and appear at the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau. Applications cannot be made at overseas diplomatic establishments. There are just eight special refugee investigators. The number is expected to increase under the fiscal 2003 budget, but it still cannot keep pace with the increasing number of applicants. Moreover, if the person seeking refugee status does not have a valid passport, he or she might be deported as an illegal entrant before acquiring refugee recognition. The application period, at present within 60 days of entering Japan, seems likely to be extended. So as to ensure speedy and fair screening and to improve the recognition system, however, it is a viable idea to let a third party play a role in studying such an improvement.

Although the government is studying the matter in a special committee set up in the Cabinet Secretariat, only minor improvements are being made. Because of the situation in North Korea, a flood of refugees to Japan could occur. Instead of just being satisfied ushering them on to a third country, it is necessary for the Japanese government to formulate a clear policy on refugee acceptance.

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