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Japan Takes In Few Refugees

The nation granted asylum to 46 people last year, up from 15 in 2004. Although it is changing its policies, critics say it still isn't doing enough.

April 02, 2006|Kana Inagaki | Associated Press Writer

TOKYO — Last year, Japan's contribution to the United Nations refugee agency was second only to the United States, underlining its years of support for people in need.

Yet, although it has been quick to help refugees abroad, Japan has long taken a tough line on letting them come to its own shores.

According to the Ministry of Justice, Japan granted refugee status to 46 people last year -- and that was up from 15 in 2004. Meanwhile, the U.S. took in 21,148 refugees and France accepted 15,866 in 2004.

Official figures for 2005 show Japan granted refugee status to about 12% of the people who applied and 3.5% in 2004. In contrast, the U.S. approved about 33% of its applicants in 2004 and Belgium approved 26%, according to U.N. figures.

Although experts say Japan may never become a major asylum for refugees, its policies are moving closer to those of other developed countries.

"The number of asylum seekers applying at airports has increased," said Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer representing Burmese refugees. "I can sense an effort on the part of the Ministry of Justice to bring Japanese standards closer to the international level."

Japanese officials caused an outcry in July 2004 when they traveled to Turkey to check the backgrounds of a group of Kurdish asylum seekers and their families. Critics said enlisting the help of Turkish authorities, who have been trying to quash separatist sentiment among ethnic Kurds, could endanger the lives of the refugees if they ever returned to their homeland.

Japan again drew criticism last year when it deported a Turkish Kurd and his son who had been recognized as refugees by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Stung by the criticism, Japan overhauled its criteria for accepting refugees. Since last spring, applicants have been granted a provisional stay during the asylum procedure to ensure a minimum level of legal protection. Asylum seekers are no longer automatically detained when they apply for refugee status upon landing at an airport.

Refugees whose applications are rejected can have their appeals reviewed by third parties, such as lawyers and professors. Ministry of Justice officials say U.N. refugee experts and aid groups also are being brought in to help train immigration officials on human rights and refugee protection.

"Officials in charge of refugees have no discriminatory feelings," said Shigefumi Oshima, director of the Refugee Recognition Office. "Officials handling refugees have a much better understanding of human rights than other immigration officials."

But with Japan's reputation for turning refugees away, few asylum seekers come to begin with. In 2005, 384 asylum seekers applied in Japan, down from 426 the previous year, contrasted with 58,545 for France and 44,972 for the U.S. in 2004.

Critics say Japan's system is still riddled with problems despite procedural changes.

According to the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, all but three of the refugees accepted last year were from Myanmar, also known as Burma, in Southeast Asia. Of those three, two were from Iran and one from the Republic of Congo. Refugee lawyers say Japan is too timid to take in refugees from any but the most widely condemned areas.

No Kurdish asylum seeker has ever been accepted from Turkey, a democratic nation with close ties to Japan. The military junta that runs Myanmar, on the other hand, has been singled out for international criticism for abusing human rights.

Possibly the biggest shortcoming, however, is that the handling of asylum seekers when they enter Japan is left solely to the discretion of immigration authorities, critics say.

Refugee advocates say asylum seekers are not given sufficient protection at airports and are ill-treated at detention centers, which are generally off limits to outside observers.

"While immigration officials may have received prior training, they do not really grasp the meaning of who refugees are," said Misaki Yagishita of Amnesty International Japan.

Since early 2002, Junpei Yamamura, a doctor who provides free medical consultations for refugees and foreign residents, has conducted monthly interviews with more than 100 detainees at a detention center in Ushiku, about 65 miles north of Tokyo. He said he found a pattern of poor medical treatment and physical and verbal abuse.

Yamamura's reports have been submitted to the Ministry of Justice and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

"Immigration officials do not understand what kind of people refugees are, nor do these officials have any understanding of what will happen to these people after they are deported back to their home country," he said.

Officials deny that asylum seekers are mistreated.

"Immigration officials are trained intensively on human rights," said Oshima at the Refugee Recognition Office. "Of course we don't think it's enough, but we are doing as much as possible."

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