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Asylum-Seekers Hit Roadblock in Japan

The country is criticized for not taking in refugees at the rate of other industrialized nations. Only 14 were approved in 2002.

May 18, 2003|Hans Greimel | Associated Press Writer

TOKYO — Abdul Ahmad didn't realize that the odds were stacked against him when he applied for asylum in Japan.

His case seemed obvious enough to him. Taliban gunmen had rampaged through his village in Afghanistan, shooting his fellow minority Hazaras, including his brother and father. And he had always heard that Japan was a safe, stable country with plenty of opportunity for all.

But two frustrating years of applications and appeals ended recently when a final judgment from the Justice Ministry rejected Ahmad's plea for refuge and paved the way for deportation to the homeland where he dreads ethnic persecution.

Japan may be one of the world's richest nations, with a charitable image from shelling out billions of dollars in aid to countries every year. But when it comes to taking in asylum-seekers and war refugees, it is among the stingiest.

Of the roughly 1 million asylum-seekers worldwide, Japan sheltered only 26 in 2001. That compares with 20,487 in the United States, 17,547 in Germany and 14,410 in Britain.

Japan's government didn't begin taking in even the trickle of refugees until 1982, and its reluctance to put out the welcome mat has drawn criticism.

"It's completely embarrassing," said Takatsugu Aoki, an activist with Rafiq, a support group for asylum-seekers in Japan. "The policy is too stringent, and officials lack professional understanding of why people flee. Things need to change."

The latest Japanese figures, released in March, highlighted the dour picture. The number of refugees allowed in dropped by nearly half last year to just 14 people from 250 applicants, an acceptance rate of 5.6%.

In 2001, the United States took in 34.5% of 59,432 applicants, while Canada sheltered 30.3% of 44,038. Britain accepted 15.7% of 92,000, and Germany took in 19.9% of 88,287.

That year, the United Nations criticized Japan for not pulling its weight.

The rebuke was especially stinging because a Japanese, Sadako Ogata, retired that January as U.N. high commissioner for refugees after heading the agency for almost a decade.

Japan's Justice Ministry cites the paucity of applicants for the low number of refugees taken in. It also says the figures are deceptively small because Japan also grants amnesty on a humanitarian basis to dozens who don't qualify for official refugee status under U.N. guidelines.

Taking the latter people into account, the government says its acceptance rate rises to 24.6%, in line with -- but still below -- other industrialized nations. Britain and Germany do the same, making their rates 32% and 26.9%, respectively.

Japan argues that the low number of refugee applications stems from the high cost of getting here, and from Japan not being a popular destination because of language difficulties and its notoriously high cost of living.

But the United Nations says the low number is partly of Japan's own making, because its reputation as an unwelcoming destination discourages asylum-seekers from even trying.

"The burden of proof is too high compared with other countries, and many fear the risk of deportation is too high," said Eri Ishikawa, a U.N. spokeswoman in Tokyo.

Japanese officials are slowly acknowledging a problem. The government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is trying to make it easier to apply for asylum by extending the period for filing from 60 days after arrival to six months. Other changes aim to halt automatic deportation of asylum-seekers who enter the country illegally. And, in April, the government began paying for cultural adaptation classes.

"I'm aware this may still fall short," said Koizumi's spokeswoman, Misako Kaji. "Still, this may be one step forward."

The Japan Assn. for Refugees dismisses the reforms as superficial. It says they fail to provide monetary assistance for destitute refugees and do little to provide better counseling on the application process at entry points like airports. The changes also don't address complaints that asylum judgments are arbitrary.

Ahmad set his sights on Japan because his father had been here decades ago and described it as "a nice country." After arriving, however, he struggled with the language and scraped by salvaging used auto parts.

When his first application was turned down, he appealed. But his latest rejection was the end of the line, leaving Ahmad unsure whether to risk arrest for staying as an illegal immigrant, sue the government or return home.

"Everybody loves their own country best," he said. "But my country has big problems, and I don't want to go back."

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