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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006

Japan can't stop the tide of people: UNHCR chief


Staff writer

As more people migrate worldwide, Japan will not be able to stop immigration, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, saying he was concerned with Japan's restrictive refugee acceptance program and treatment of asylum-seekers.

News photo
Antonio Guterres SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

"One key aspect of the 21st century will be people moving, around the world. And I don't think any society will be able not to participate in this situation," Antonio Guterres told a news conference Monday.

Guterres, on a three-day visit that ended Wednesday, said the U.N. agency was troubled with all parts of the process to become a refugee in Japan.

"I'd say we have three main concerns -- first, improvement of the reception of asylum-seekers and of the procedural mechanisms to make sure that there is an adequate set of decisions in an adequate time framework and the forms of assistance that are desirable," he said. "And the possibility to open one, even if limited, program of resettlement."

"We recognize that every country has the right to define its own migration policy," Guterres elaborated in an interview Tuesday with The Japan Times. "Our concern and the concern that is established by international law is that for instance in these mixed flows of populations that we are now witnessing all around the world, independent of migration policies, countries are supposed to grant protection to the people that need protection. That means physical access to protection procedures, namely refugee status determination and the fair treatment of their requirements."

The ex-Portuguese prime minister came to talk to the Foreign Ministry about Japan's refugee assistance overseas, nongovernmental organizations and to boost ties with the private sector, and to discuss with the Justice Ministry the treatment of asylum-seekers.

NGOs here complain that despite changes in the immigration law last year, the government continues to detain asylum-seekers and does not provide them with adequate services, even after they are declared refugees.

The UNHCR's Country Operations Plan 2007 notes that while people are applying for refugees status here, they do not have the right to work and get little community support, including free legal service, which residents can get under the new legal aid system.

While immigration law changes introduced a new appeals review panel with nonimmigration counselors -- appointed by the government -- the UNHCR report says it is still not independent.

Still, Guterres was upbeat about recent developments: "Japan has an embryonic asylum system, but that is moving with positive steps."

The number of people who have been given asylum here rose dramatically in 2005.

The government finished processing 384 asylum applications in 2005. Of those 46 were recognized as refugees -- 15 of them on appeal -- and 97 were issued special resident permits for humanitarian reasons.

This compares with only 15 people recognized as refugees and nine granted special permits in 2004 out of 426 applications processed.

Janet Lim, head of the UNHCR's Bureau for Asia and the Pacific who also was visiting, said the UNHCR had lots of experience helping nations deal with refugees, and was ready to share its expertise with Tokyo.

Robert Robinson, UNHCR chief representative for Japan, told the Monday briefing he hoped talks at the Justice Ministry speed up introduction of a border-guard training program. "That's a critical move for us," he said.

In addition to Japan's moral obligation to help people in danger, Lim said refugees can help countries that need labor, alluding to Japan's shrinking labor force.

"They are here anyway and refugees are not just here as a burden," she said. "If we were given the possibility to train them and give them skills, they could be made to fit the labor need of the country."



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