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‘Japan Is Not Coldhearted,’ Says Immigration Appeals Examiner

Immigration in Japan: why are displaced Ukrainians readily accepted when people from Myanmar or Afghanistan aren’t being granted refugee status?

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A family of Ukrainian refugees weep when they arrive at Haneda Airport on a government plane on April 5, 2022. Interview. April 5, 2022 (Sankei)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Japan. 

While the public and private sectors are providing them with unprecedented support, questions are also being raised. “Why are only Ukrainians receiving privileged treatment when people from Myanmar or Afghanistan aren’t being granted refugee status?” ask some observers. 

Japan has an image of being coldhearted to refugees and granting asylum to only a few. However, one expert warns against easy criticism, saying: “Japan has always granted asylum to true refugees. Humanitarian aid to Ukraine and recognition of refugee status should be considered separately.” 

Refugees talking while eating traditional Ukrainian food at an exchange in Yokohama City on the afternoon of April 28, 2022. (Sankei)

Exceptional Hospitality for Ukrainians

According to the Immigration Bureau of Japan, the country has taken in 1047 refugees from Ukraine as of May 24. The government is proactively granting the displaced Ukrainians 90-day temporary visitor status which, depending on the circumstances, can be changed to a one-year designated activity status that permits work. This can also be renewed if the war drags on.

Support for the displaced Ukrainians is also unprecedented. The government announced in April a package that provides living assistance of up to ¥2,400 JPY per day ($18 USD) for refugees who do not have family or friends in Japan. The package also includes one-time grants of ¥160,000 JPY (about $1,200 USD) for refugees and coverage for the cost of all medical expenses. 

In the private sector, too, there are various forms of support. For example, the Nippon Foundation will sustain refugees with ¥1 million JPY (about $7,400 USD) per person per year and up to ¥3 million JPY ($22,200 USD) per household per year.

Japan has been criticized for being a closed country with a low acceptance rate of refugees. At the same time, Ukrainians are not considered refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Rather, they are designated under the exception, “displaced persons.” 

Nevertheless, the speedy and generous treatment afforded to them is “an exception among exceptions,” as a member of the Immigration Bureau puts it. 

Pyae Lyan Aung shows a three-finger salute after intending to seek refugee asylum at Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture on June 17. (KYODO/via REUTERS)

Cold Hearted Japan?

This has led to the question, why can’t Japan provide the same support to people from Afghanistan and Myanmar?. Applications for refugee status filed by some of the people from both countries have been rejected, which appears to be in contrast to the warm treatment offered to Ukrainians. 

The tone of the debate seems to be “Let’s change Japan, a country that’s coldhearted to refugees.” However, what do the facts tell us?

The number of people granted refugee status in 2021 was seventy-four. That is only three percent of the 2413 applicants (data published by the Immigration Bureau on May 13, 2022.) 

In contrast, the number of refugees accepted by other G7 countries was higher. Germany, for example, accepted 63,456 people (41.7%), Canada 19,596 people (55.2%), and the United States 18,177 people (25.7%) of applicants, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Japan’s numbers certainly look smaller.

A kitchen in Fukaya Municipal Housing, where refugees from Ukraine have been placed. Refrigerators and kitchen utensils were donated by major companies. (provided by Fukaya City)

Few Are True Refugees

Fusako Yanase, Honorary President of the NPO Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, who serves as an advisory examiner for refugee applications, disagrees with the complaints. She does not feel that the closed country discourse is completely correct. 

“The examiners onsite considers each applicant very seriously to determine who genuinely needs help,” she explains. “Japan is not coldhearted to refugees.”

An examiner from the Immigration Bureau launches an investigation to ascertain the facts of each applicant’s situation as soon as the application is filed. If an applicant is rejected, an appeal can be made to a panel of three refugee examiners. Ms. Yanase laments, “We carefully read more than one hundred pages per applicant, and we also have a face-to-face interview. Yet, the majority of applicants are rejected.”

Regarding the reason why so few applicants are granted asylum, Ms. Yanase explains, “The majority of applicants only wish to work in Japan. There are very few actual refugees.” She has heard more than 3,000 cases as a refugee examiner, but among them less than 10 appeals cases have been recognized as refugees. The truth is that the majority are applying for personal reasons.

Reasons for seeking refugee status by some rejected cases vary. Among them, however, are: “I’ll be targeted by debt collectors if I go back to my country,” and “The family of the partner with whom I’m having an affair will kill me.” Then there are others, such as “I have learned to love alcohol, so I cannot go back to an Islamic country.” 

Recently, too, there has been an increase in would-be immigrants posting critical comments about their own governments after arriving in Japan, then claiming they will be arrested if they return to their countries.

In 2018, the Immigration Bureau began monitoring for refugee applicants seeking to come to work in Japan disguised as refugees. Also, now the government does not allow applicants who have been rejected once to work while waiting for the results of their appeal or re-application.  

As a result, the number of applicants in 2018 was halved from the 20,000 received in 2017. In 2021, this number dropped to a little over 2,000. This is evidence that many of the applications were for work purposes. 

In a related point, the UNHCR states that 42% of refugees around the world are children. But the overwhelming majority of applicants in Japan are over twenty years of age.

Testing Japan’s Resolve

Under existing laws, rejected applicants can apply repeatedly for an unlimited number of times. So about half the people who applied in 2021 had a history of being rejected before. “In the past,” Ms Yanase says, “I’ve seen someone who had been living in Japan for nearly 30 years apply for the 6th time.”

There are other reasons why so few refugees are seeking out Japan. According to the UNHCR, 73% of refugees flee to neighboring countries. Most Syrians or Afghanis, for example, escape to neighboring Turkey or Pakistan. Japan is distant and surrounded by the sea, making it a difficult choice for many to imagine.

This is not to say there are no institutional challenges. It usually takes 32 months on average to evaluate a first-time application, and 20 months for an appeal. “We should be able to pass quicker judgments on people who are clearly not refugees,” Ms. Yanase says. It would be for the sake of both the applicant and the examiners.”

Based on this, Ms. Yanase emphasizes that providing humanitarian support to displaced persons from Ukraine and granting refugee status to people from Afghanistan and Myanmar should be viewed from different perspectives. 

There is a reason refugee applications are rejected, she says, adding that there should be a rational discussion on the matter. “Accepting a larger number of requests isn’t automatically a good thing,” she adds. “We need to zoom in on each specific case.”

Foreign Workers in Japan (Sankei, 2018)

Living with Foreigners

On the other hand, the question we should most focus on in the wake of the Ukraine issue is whether Japan is genuinely resolved to coexist with foreigners. “The refugee issue is just the tip of the iceberg when we talk about immigration, says Ms. Yanase. 

“Japan is an aging society. What societal position are we going to assign to foreigners from now on? 

“Will we just employ them as workers or value them as resources that improve our national power? We need to define this clearly, or the refugee system will continue to be used as a loophole for work.”

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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Tomo Kuwamura