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Saturday, July 13, 2002

New asylum policy would benefit Japan and refugees


In the wake of the May 8 Shenyang consulate incident, Tokyo is reviewing its refugee policy. Predictably, it has set up a committee to think about it all. This writer is a member. What he sees is not encouraging.

This is not to criticize Japan's behavior -- on the contrary. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention and Protocol on refugees, Tokyo, unlike most others, still feels obliged to go through the correct procedures. So any foreigner in Japan -- even people caught for false passports, illegal stay-over or other offenses -- can in principle simply turn round and claim to be a refugee. Having made that claim they are automatically entitled to receive due processing.

(In theory, only those in Japan for less than 60 days -- soon to be lengthened to 180 days, according to reports -- can make that claim. In practice, claims by some who have been here much longer are also accepted and have to be processed.)

The processing is polite. Refugee claimants receive a document legitimizing their claimant status. This then lets them get a certificate of alien registration -- a Holy Grail for most illegals in Japan. Claimants are free to live and travel where they like, and to take jobs.

From time to time they receive letters calling them in for interviews to determine whether they really are genuine refugees. About one-third ignore the summons and go to ground. Those who do show up can stretch out the interviews for up to well over a year before a decision is reached.

If the decision is negative, the claimant can then begin legal appeals lasting a few more years. But most move on to other countries, including even the country from which they were supposed to be fleeing in the first place.

Critics make much of the fact that only about 10 percent of claimants are finally approved as genuine refugees. But given this background, that low figure is not too surprising. The critics should also take a look at the very large costs imposed on Japan, not the least being the need to publish and translate materials in a variety of languages, and to constantly find suitable interpreters for interviews with people who for the most part are not genuine refugees to begin with.

A similar effort to rid Japan of criminally minded illegal entrants would do far more good.

If Tokyo is to be criticized, it should be for its unwillingness to take in genuine refugees in refugee camps abroad. It says it will only accept claims from people already in Japan. By definition, if the people making the claims can make it all the way to Japan then most of them are unlikely to be genuine refugees.

If Japan wants a refugee policy then it needs to do something about these nongenuine refugees. It does not need to follow the European model, where the messy, prolonged, expensive and ultimately arbitrary processing of hordes claiming refugee status is beginning to try public patience and is helping dangerous rightwing movements to emerge.

Most of these refugee claimants are simply people seeking a better life abroad -- economic refugees. As such, most would quickly be rejected as illegal entrants but for the problem of repatriation and misguided Statue of Liberty complexes that say advanced societies have to provide refuge for the tired, wretched and huddled masses from outside.

On the other hand, it is also clear that most advanced nations could benefit economically, culturally and demographically from a steady inflow of foreign labor, Japan especially. Back in 1994 I visited a Kyushu forest area desperately short of labor. A few kilometers away in Fukuoka the police were rounding up for deportation several dozen fit young Chinese who had just smuggled themselves into Japan.

Immigration officials are proud of the numbers of illegal workers they find and deport from the metal-working factories north of Tokyo. That some of those factories could go bankrupt as a result does not seem to be noticed.

One answer would be for Japan to relax its restrictions on foreign workers, and to treat illegal entrants by roughly the same standards as those used for people seeking to enter Japan legally. Decisions would be quick and irrevocable. Those who did not meet the immigration standards would have to leave, forcibly if necessary. That might be cruel for genuine refugees mistakenly rejected as unsuitable economic refugees. But if the U.N. is so concerned about refugee plight, it, too, should bear some of the burden. It has refugee camps around the globe. Rejected refugees could have the option of being sent to one or other of those camps.

True, conditions there might not be very pleasant. But if I were a genuine refugee fleeing for my life, I would not complain about having to leave Japan to live in a tent under U.N. auspices. If I was not a genuine refugee, I would think twice before I claimed to be one in a nation that I had entered illegally. Such a deterrent effect would be welcome.

Certainly something along these lines would be a lot better than the current Australian solution -- leaving illegals claiming to be genuine refugees to rot in riot-prone desert camps for months for processing, and then having to bribe barren Pacific islands to take those rejected. That, too, has had its deterrent effect. But it has also been very traumatic, for both sides.

Gregory Clark is honorary president of Tama University, and has served on many Japanese government policy committees.


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