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Thursday, Dec. 3, 1998

Seeking Refuge: Arbitary policy shutters window to asylum


Last of a three-part series on Japan's refugee policy

Staff writer

Is Japan's door closed to refugees? Some experts say so, and many contend that the nation's refugee policy lacks transparency.

In the last few years, the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau has been criticized for recognizing too few refugees and keeping many asylum-seekers waiting too long for the result of their applications.

As of Aug. 31, the government had accepted 1,654 applications for political asylum since 1982, when the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees took effect in Japan. Although 225 have since been granted refugee status, more than 900 have been rejected -- often after being kept waiting for many years.

So far this year, the ministry has admitted 14 refugees. This is the first year since 1988 that Japan has accepted 10 or more refugees. From 1994 to 1997, only one or two people were granted asylum per year, causing observers to charge that Japan's refugee policies are too restrictive.

"Compared with other industrialized nations, the number of refugees Japan has accepted is incredibly small," said Hiroshi Honma, professor of international law at Surugadai University. "The nation's refugee policy is too harsh for applicants."

According to statistics by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 6 million asylum applications have been submitted worldwide in the last decade, of which some 600,000 have been accepted based on the convention.

Experts say the 1951 convention was intended to protect those fleeing from communist regimes. But as the number of asylum-seekers from Third World nations surged in the '70s and '80s, European nations moved to crack down on abuses of the system by people making bogus claims in order to live and work in a wealthy country.

Since the early '90s, European countries have tightened conditions for granting refugee status as per the convention. As a result, experts say, increasingly more people have been flowing into the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand -- and Japan.

The Justice Ministry screens applicants behind closed doors and often adds diplomatic considerations, Honma said.

Immigration Bureau officials maintain that they exercise no administrative discretion and carefully examine each case to see if it meets the conditions spelled out by the convention.

The convention defines a refugee as someone who, due to a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion," is outside the country of nationality and is unable or unwilling to receive protection of the country; or someone who does not have a nationality and is outside of the country of former residence as a result of such circumstances.

The convention also lists conditions for barring applicants from being granted refugee status, such as when they voluntarily reacquire their nationality after losing it, or have acquired a new nationality and enjoy the protection of their new country.

But scholars are quick to point out that Japan has another rule for rejecting refugees: the 60-day application deadline.

The 60-day rule, under the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, requires those seeking asylum to apply for it within 60 days of landing in Japan or within 60 days from the time circumstances arise that would qualify them as refugees.

While Japan is not alone in setting such deadlines, the rigid manner in which it enforces the rule is unique, said Kokhi Abe, assistant professor of law at Kanagawa University, who is currently doing research on Canadian refugee policy at York University in Toronto.

Takayuki Yoneda, an official at the bureau's Refugee Recognition Office, rebuts the scholars' arguments, saying the bureau considers cases even if applicants file claims past the deadlines. "Otherwise, we would not be drawing flak for being slow," he contended.

In fact, there are signs that the government may be easing its stance on this point. Five people from Myanmar who received refugee status in November came to Japan between 1990 and 1992, but did not apply until February last year.

But Yoneda acknowledged that after the bureau examines a case and decides the applicant does not merit the status, it could still officially cite the 60-day rule as the reason for its rejection.

"If you look at the system meticulously, it is true that it has various flaws," he said. "But so far this year, our No. 1 priority is just to process the pending cases as soon as possible. We are doing our best with limited resources."

The reason for rejection is listed in one line on notices, usually citing a violation of the 60-day requirement or insufficient evidence to back up the case. In most situations, rejections are attributed to the 60-day rule, say lawyers supporting those seeking asylum.

"These are announcements of the decisions, not reasons," Abe said. "For asylum proceedings to be trusted, the officials must explain in detail why an application was rejected."

In Canada, where about 25,000 people file for political asylum every year and more than 10,000 are accepted as refugees based on the convention, the screening is more transparent to the public, according to Abe.

The Ottawa government publicizes in detail on the Internet its criteria for when and how asylum-seekers are recognized.

This not only makes the system transparent, but also deters people from abusing it, Abe said.

Osamu Arakaki, a lecturer at Meiji Gakuin University, said the procedures in Australia and New Zealand also have become more transparent to the public in recent years.

Honma of Surugadai University said Japan's system is unfair, because the same justice minister who has turned down a refugee applicant has the final say in the appeal process as well.

It seems the Japanese procedures gradually are becoming more accessible to the public. In response to calls for transparency, ministry officials recently started meeting regularly with a representative from the Japan office of the UNHCR to exchange information and opinions on individual applicants.



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