Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

The Justice Ministry, bombarded with applications from Asian nationals seeking refugee status, is moving to streamline the process by swiftly filtering out applicants who are clearly not refugees.

The surge in applications is due to a mistaken belief across Asia that individuals can continue working in Japan while their cases are being processed.

The ministry's decision to speed up its procedures is not expected to deflate mounting criticism over Japan's poor track record of accepting refugees.

In 2016, 28 individuals were granted refugee status, but only 10 were recognized as of Sept. 30, 2017.

Immigration officials cited a dramatic increase in the number of applications for the slow pace at which cases are screened.

Their workload shot up after 2010 when only 1,202 applications were submitted. In 2016, the figure exceeded 10,000, and as of Sept. 30, 2017, it stood at 14,043.

Immigration officers attributed the surge to a widely held misconception that applicants can continue to work in Japan while their applications are being processed.

According to Justice Ministry officials, more than half of the applications rejected in the first round of screening in 2017 were clearly not submitted by individuals with genuine cause to seek refugee status.

Many of those who were turned down claimed they were being threatened in their home nations because they were unable to repay debts or loans.

Under the new policy announced by the Justice Ministry on Jan. 12, restrictions will be placed on whether refugee applicants can work or study while their cases are being processed. The measures will apply to all applications from Jan. 15.

Under the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, individuals who have submitted applications for refugee status cannot be deported.

Moreover, since March 2010, the Justice Ministry has allowed those who entered Japan on short-term visas, study or technical intern trainee visas to begin working six months after submitting a refugee application.

The sharp increase in the number of applications has slowed the pace at which individual cases are processed.

The initial stage, which also involves an interview with an immigration official, now takes an average of 9.9 months. Appeals by those who have been rejected at the initial stage take an average of 23.4 months to complete.

Under the new system, immigration officials will classify applicants into four categories within two months of the initial application based on the documents submitted.

Those deemed to have a good chance of being accepted would be placed in the "A" category, while those who are clearly not refugees would be placed in the "B" category. Many of those who will end up in this category come to Japan with the aim of finding work or who may face financial problems back home, immigration officials said.

Individuals who have re-submitted an application giving the same reason would be classified as belonging to the "C" category. All others would go in the "D" category.

Those in categories B and C as well as those placed in D category on a re-submission will not be allowed to work and study, but would face concurrent procedures that eventually lead to their deportation.

Those classified in the A category would be allowed to begin working without waiting six months. Those in the D category, excluding individuals who dropped out of school or as technical intern trainees, would also be allowed to work after six months.

Immigration authorities have tried previously to reduce their workload.

Since September 2015, those who repeatedly submit applications giving the same reason have not been allowed to work or stay in Japan. However, that measure proved ineffective because 90 percent of the applications are being submitted for the first time.

But, faced with a backlog of work, immigration officials felt something had to be done.

As of Sept. 30, there were 16,658 applicants who had yet to complete the initial stage of the screening process. That represented an increase of about 7,000 from the same period in 2016.