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Japan keeps airtight lid on refugees as applications soar

Authorities clamp down on migrant workers suspected of abusing process

A total of 81 Syrians fleeing the civil war applied for refugee status in Japan between 2011 and 2017. Residency was granted to 70.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan approved only 20 out of a record 19,628 applicants for refugee status last year as authorities reject appeals they suspect come from job-seekers.

Last year saw an increase of 8,727 people applying for refugee status from 2016 levels, the Ministry of Justice reported Tuesday. The total number set a record for the seventh year in the row.

The greatest contingent of 2017's applicants came from the Philippines, the figure climbing 250% to 4,895 people. Vietnam came next at 3,116, followed by Sri Lanka with 2,226.

But among applicants from the top 10 nationalities, none were approved as refugees. Total approvals fell from 28 in 2016 to 20.

Among the 20 people recognized as full-fledged refugees, Egypt and Syria were the top nations of origin at five each. An additional 45 were granted Japanese residency for humanitarian reasons, although they are not recognized as refugees.

A total of 81 Syrians fleeing the civil war applied for status between 2011 and 2017. Among the 76 who completed their screenings, 70 were allowed residency as refugees or on humanitarian grounds. The other six withdrew their applications.

Under Japanese law, people who are recognized as legal refugees must have valid reasons to fear persecution in their home country for such reasons as ethnicity or religion. A 2010 amendment allows applicants to start working in Japan six months after filing.

That work provision was implemented to let those waiting for approval of their applications make a living. But there are also more cases where the refugee process is abused as a loophole for legal employment, including cases of repeat filings to maintain work status.   

The record number of applicants risks slowing down the review process that identifies true refugees. The average screening took 9.6 months last year, growing by about a month from 2016. The sum of backlog applications still awaiting review also climbed to some 18,000 cases at the end of last year.

Japan put into effect refugee status rules on Jan. 15 that sort applicants into four categories within two months of their initial filing. Those who obviously fail to fit the description of a refugee, as well as those who resubmit applications giving the same reasons, will be not be granted work eligibility nor extended residency. Those denied approval will face deportation when their initial stay expires.

Under the new rules, the daily count of applications Jan. 15 through Jan. 31 fell by roughly 50% compared with the daily average in December. The Ministry of Justice believes a decrease in refugee filings aimed actually at gaining work status will lend to quicker screenings.

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