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The Justice Ministry said Friday that applications for refugee status plunged 35 percent in the first half of 2018, compared with the same period last year, after a stricter screening system was introduced in January to eliminate applicants believed to be job-seekers.
In the January-June period 5,586 people applied for refugee status, down 2,975 from the same period last year.
The new screening system also seems to be helping to identify those who are genuinely in need of protection, and discouraging those who don’t from applying. The number of people who withdrew their applications stood at 1,451 in the first half, compared with 1,612 through the whole of last year.
“While it has only been half a year since the reform was implemented, we have seen that the new measures have been effective, to a certain extent, in restricting misuse and abuse of the refugee application system by persons whose actual objective is to secure jobs in Japan,” said Tetsuro Isobe, director of the Refugee Recognition Office at the Immigration Bureau, which is overseen by the Justice Ministry.
He also said the decrease in the number of applications allowed the ministry to allocate more manpower to the screening process, thereby raising the number of cases handled by the ministry during the period and even contributing to a rise in the number of people granted asylum.
The ministry had finished screening 6,375 applicants, up 42 percent from the same period last year. It granted refugee status to 22 applicants in the first half of the year, including four from China and three from Syria, eclipsing last year’s total of 20.
Most of the applicants came from Nepal, followed by the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka — unchanged from the demographic seen before introduction of the new screening system.
Japan has continued to see more applicants seeking refugee status, with the number reaching a record high of 19,629 last year. The ministry believes a large portion are unskilled laborers from Asia seeking to take advantage of the system, which granted work permits to all asylum-seekers six months after applying for refugee status.
But in January the ministry launched a stricter screening process to crack down on potential abuse and accelerate the issuance of work permits for legitimate refugees.
Under the new rules, the ministry conducts an initial screening for first-time asylum-seekers within two months of their applications being filed to identify those highly likely to secure asylum status so that they can be swiftly granted work permits.
Those who file applications based on reasons the ministry does not recognize as fitting the 1951 refugee convention face deportation.
In the first half, 12 applicants were given work permits through the fast-track screening program and 1,606 faced deportation.
Applicants the ministry cannot categorize with certainty after two months are normally given work permits six months after applying. They exclude people who have been allowed to enter Japan to study or work under Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program but no longer engage in those activities. But some experts suspect some of them probably qualify for asylum nevertheless.
“There were cases last year in which persons who applied for refugee status after quitting as technical trainees or leaving study were accepted as refugees. But under the current system, they are unable to work while waiting for their screening results,” said Eri Ishikawa, head of the Japan Association for Refugees.
“The refugee screening system is primarily to assist those who should be recognized as refugees; it should never increase their suffering,” she added.
The U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as individuals who possess a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.