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The Justice Ministry announced two weeks ago that a record 501 foreigners were granted residence permits on humanitarian grounds in Japan in 2009. This is a step in the right direction from the 1990s, when the number of permits could often be counted on one hand. However, the number granted official refugee status in Japan was only 30, down by half from 2008. With a total of 1,388 people seeking refugee status in Japan in 2009, the number of permits needs to be increased and the application process streamlined.

The government has gradually improved the application procedures, but the results still remain limited. Most of the work is still handled by local volunteer nongovernment organizations (NGOs) such as the Japan Association for Refugees. The largest problem is finding means of subsistence because waiting applicants do not have permission to work. While they wait, sometimes for years, access to medical care, education and social services can be a struggle, not to mention the difficulties of adapting to Japanese culture.

Many applicants arrive here directly from refugee camps or unimaginably difficult situations. Without help from NGOs and the U.N. representatives here, they could not even begin to consider remaining in Japan, or anywhere else.

As with much of government decision-making, the process to assess applications is insufficiently transparent. Perhaps the government is hung up on habitual objections to letting in foreign residents, in general, due to such concerns as competition for scarce jobs, the crime rate or burdens on social services. However, these fears hardly apply to the majority of refugees.

The permits are for one year, which does not really resolve their status for the long term. Appealing rejections is difficult since finding legal representation over a period of time is expensive. Surely, some refugee claims must be rejected, but unless the reasons are stated openly and directly, progress cannot be easily made. In the meantime, many needy people are left in limbo.

The Japanese government ratified the Refugee Convention and Protocol in 1981. It has been generous with money, but much less generous with providing sanctuary to those in need inside the security of its own borders. Improvements need to take place not only in the bureaucratic procedures, but also in society. A more humane and generous attitude to this problem should be encouraged. Safety nets for applicants, smoother procedures and greater awareness of their plight would be a start.

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