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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008

Asylum claims nearly double

Swamped, the Foreign Ministry is running out of support funds


Staff writer

The number of people seeking asylum in Japan is surging toward a new record, and the government is grappling to deal with the flood, a nonprofit support organization has warned.

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Due to the rapid increase, to almost double the number of last year's applicants, the government's budget for supporting the refugees, many of whom have no means of support, is close to drying up, the Foreign Ministry admitted Wednesday.

According to the Japan Association for Refugees, 1,450 people had applied for refugee status as of the beginning of this month, after exceeding 1,000 in September.

The previous record for applications is 954, set in 2006.

The applicants include people from Myanmar, one of the largest groups applying for refugee status since the democratization movement started there in the 1980s. The number has continued to increase since the junta's crackdown last year.

Other significant increases in asylum seekers include people from Sri Lanka, where a ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels expired earlier this year, Bangladeshis and Kurds, JAR said.

There has also been a notable increase from unstable areas of Africa, including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, the NPO said.

The Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau said it won't provide official figures for applicants or approvals until next year but confirmed the trend identified by JAR.

The increase in applicants from Africa has been attributed to the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama in May and the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido in July, said Eri Ishikawa, secretary general of JAR.

"Through those two events, Japan's commitment to Africa was reported by the media in those countries, and people may have gained a good impression of Japan as a country that gives humanitarian aid, leading many to consider Japan as a place they can escape to," Ishikawa said.

The Foreign Ministry in principle provides financial support to asylum seekers in dire need, including those having no job, money or place to live.

According to an official at the Foreign Ministry's Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Division who handles such support, an adult is provided ¥1,500 and a child ¥750 a day for living expenses. If housing is needed, a family receives a maximum of ¥60,000 a month for rent.

A single person can get ¥40,000.

In principle, the financial support is given for four months.

Through its affiliated Refugee Assistance Headquarters, the ministry provided support to 235 asylum seekers just in November.

Last year, 95 people a month received support, said the government official, who declined to be named.

"The number of people we support has been rising constantly this year," she said.

This year, based on past needs, the budget was set at ¥78 million, but this has almost been exhausted because of the rapid rise, she admitted.

The ministry is now mulling measures to secure sufficient funding until the March 31 end of the fiscal year.

The official said the ministry will push to increase the budget for next year under the assumption the trend will continue.

Ishikawa of JAR, who shares the view that more people will continue to seek asylum in Japan, said it takes an average of two years to resolve an application.

Since many asylum seekers can't work and don't have access to medical insurance during this time, four months of support is clearly insufficient, she said.

Ishikawa said the amount of money a refugee is entitled to is even lower than what a Japanese citizen would get from welfare.

"The support should be designed to cover two years, or the government should allow people waiting for their status to work," she said.

"Without a job or any financial support, these people cannot live."



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