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Afghanistan turmoil

In rare move, Japan prepares to offer refuge to Afghans

Hundreds who worked at embassy and aid group could qualify for resettlement

A C-2 transporter leaves the Air Self-Defense Force's Iruma Air Base on Aug. 23 to evacuate Japanese nationals and Afghan staffers from Afghanistan. (Photo by Koji Uema)

TOKYO -- Japan has begun preparations to take in Afghans who worked for its embassy and aid organization, an unusual opening of doors to war refugees amid mounting concerns of Taliban retribution against locals who worked with foreign governments.

As Afghans and foreign nationals alike desperately try to flee the country after the Taliban's lightning assault took over the country, including the capital Kabul, Japan this week sent a Self-Defense Forces transport plane to evacuate Japanese nationals and local staffers at its embassy and the Japan International Cooperation Agency to a neighboring country.

"The government as a whole will need to consider" whether to accept Afghan refugees, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa had told reporters on Friday. She said Japan will not deport Afghans against their will for the time being.

The Japanese government plans to initially allow these Afghan staffers and their families to stay in Japan for up to 90 days on humanitarian grounds, and to later grant them visas that will allow them to stay and work in Japan for up to five years. 

Japan could grant further extensions depending on developments in Afghanistan. Afghan nationals could also apply for refugee status after a certain amount of time, which would open the door for long-term residency.

It is unclear how many would sign up for the program, though there are estimates within the Japanese government that roughly 500 could qualify.

Japan's Immigration Services Agency generally grants refugees legal status for five years initially. They can qualify for long-term residency once they renew, and as long as they meet certain obligations like living in Japan for at least five years.

It is rare for Japan to take in foreign nationals fleeing conflict. Japan granted refugee status to 47 in 2020, according to its Immigration Services Agency. In contrast, Germany recognized 63,000 and Canada 20,000.

Japan's reluctance to accept refugees has drawn international criticism especially in light of the Syrian civil war, which has forced over 6 million to flee the country since 2011. While the U.S. and Europe have announced large-scale resettlement programs, Japan took in just 95 Syrians as exchange students in the four years starting fiscal 2017.

Still, Japan has recognized roughly 10,000 refugees from the Vietnam War over the course of almost 30 years. It has also accepted dozens of Myanmar refugees annually through a program for those recognized as refugees in a third country.

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