Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be considering letting down the drawbridges for 200,000 immigrants a year in order to offset Japan’s declining population and boost the economy. At this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, Abe stated that Japan needs more foreigners, but accepting enough to make a difference may prove a nonstarter since the Justice Ministry zealously mans the drawbridges and mines the moats to limit immigration and keep asylum seekers at bay. The public is not unyieldingly opposed to more immigration, or to granting asylum to refugees, but they don’t get to decide.

In considering Abe’s immigration plans, it’s significant that in 2013 the Justice Ministry slammed the door shut for refugees, approving only six asylum seekers’ applications for refugee status out of 3,260 cases — the lowest number in 15 years.

“It is disheartening,” says Eri Ishikawa, director of the Japan Association of Refugees (JAR). “No matter what we try it doesn’t work. And the media is giving less attention to the issue.”

Between 1982 and 2013, Japan has conferred refugee status on a total of 622 asylum seekers. In this context, Abe’s plan to liberalize immigration is contradictory, inviting overseas residents to migrate while pushing away migrants already resident in Japan.

“The refugees are already here and have useful skills Japan needs and could contribute. They are resourceful and resilient so it is ironic they are being rejected,” Ishikawa says.

The recent declining trend in the number of asylum seekers gaining refugee status — 39 in 2010, 21 in 2011 and 18 in 2012 — speaks volumes about attitudes among official gatekeepers. Yet, undeterred by such unwelcoming policies, the number of applications in 2013 is the most since Japan began accepting asylum seekers under the 1981 U.N. Convention for Refugees.

JAR’s Brian Barbour explains that for refugees, “It’s about getting out of wherever they are. They have little knowledge about the Japanese system before they arrive.”

Thus harsh policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers don’t work. Barbour believes that it is crucial to pass a Refugee Protection Law as South Korea has done to safeguard asylum seekers’ human rights and prevent arbitrary abuses.

The influx of asylum seekers in Japan appears related to the government’s relaxing of visa criteria to promote tourism. Globally there has been a surge in refugees in recent years, many from the Syrian conflict, but very few Syrians make it to Japan and none have been recognized as refugees.

Citizens of Turkey, Myanmar and Nepal account for almost half of all asylum seekers in Japan. In the past decade, Myanmar nationals constituted more than 80 percent of all accepted refugees and in the past three years only nine non-Myanmarese have been accepted. However, despite significant persecution of minorities in Myanmar, the Justice Ministry only granted refugee status to three Myanmar nationals in 2013.

While applications are processed at the whim of officials, asylum seekers have no access to social services and are not permitted to work, pushing them into a limbo of vulnerability and desperation. Pity those who are turned down and issued deportation orders. They are sent to immigration detention centers for indefinite periods of boredom before being sent home. Relatively lucky asylum seekers are thrust into bureaucratic purgatory, issued temporary visas on humanitarian grounds that can be revoked at the government’s discretion; 2,157 such visas have been issued since 1982, 80 percent since 2008.

The surge in government rejections of applications for refugee status threatens to overwhelm the capacity of JAR because most unsuccessful asylum seekers file an appeal and during the lengthy process they require assistance ranging from legal to psychological. This is also a humanitarian issue as many are forced into the underground economy with all the attendant disadvantages.

It is unclear why the Justice Ministry has slammed the door shut as the process of reviewing applications is not transparent. Decisions may be appealed, but this is an in-house process that offers meager hope as only 20 percent of decisions have been overturned. Immigration officials maintain that they merely apply standard criteria in reviewing applications and routinely reject cases where it appears that the applicant is an economic refugee looking for a better life in Japan. Officials are also skeptical about stories of persecution. The measly six refugees recognized in 2013 reflects this official cynicism, one that overlooks the global upsurge in refugees due to civil wars, ethnic and communal violence, human rights abuses and persecution for sexual orientation. Is the Justice Ministry merely misinformed or willfully blind to such problems?

In 2010, the Japanese government announced a resettlement program that involves accepting refugees who have been displaced from their native country to third countries, targeting the large refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Ethnic groups caught up in the fighting with government forces sought sanctuary in neighboring Thailand and fear returning home despite tenuous ceasefires. Japan is the first Asian nation to initiate a third-country resettlement plan, but it has been an unmitigated failure. The government announced a target of 100 refugees over the initial three-year program, but only managed to recruit 47. In 2013, another 18 refugees arrived, highlighting the ongoing problem of undershooting targets.

The government established the quasi-governmental Refugee Assistance Headquarters to provide language training and other assistance to resettled refugees, but the six-month language and social integration courses have not been sufficient. These refugees were initially sent to remote communities in Mie and Chiba prefectures where they were isolated, had limited access to public services and engaged in long hours of farming work at low pay. They were purposely kept away from large concentrations of Myanmar nationals where they could find support and get advice. The government subsequently relocated most of them to Tokyo where they seem to have settled in far better. This strategy mimics the failures of an early 1980s resettlement program targeting over 12,000 Indochinese refugees. They too were scattered in rural communities, but eventually migrated to cities where they have assimilated and established thriving communities. As such, these Indochinese refugees should dispel worries that refugees are crime prone or won’t adjust to Japanese society, but their story attracts little attention.

Barbour expresses hope that “Japan as the first Asian nation to participate in this program has the opportunity to be a leader and have a significant impact in a region with many refugees. Hopefully it can realize this potential.”

This resettlement program is being extended to include ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar now resident in Malaysia, although the numbers will remain small.

World Refugee Day is commemorated on June 20 to raise awareness about the plight of refugees and to highlight their potential contributions. JAR’s Shiho Tanaka is working to overcome negative perceptions by appealing to Japan’s foodie culture, collecting simple recipes from refugees and publishing a cookbook titled, Flavors Without Borders, selling more than 7,000 copies since 2013. Readers interested in helping support JAR can buy it and spoil friends, relatives and themselves with a copy. (You can find it online at www.amazon.co.jp or www.flavours-without-borders.jp/buy.shtml.)

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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