Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

Japan received a record 19,628 asylum applications in 2017, but only 20 were successful, according to preliminary figures released by the Justice Ministry on Feb. 13.

There were 8,727 more applications compared with 2016, when 28 people were granted refugee status. The total number of asylum seekers in 2017 marked a high for the seventh straight year.

The outcome was criticized bv Saburo Takizawa, chairman of Japan for UNHCR, a nonprofit organization assisting the U.N. Refugee Agency, who said it calls into question the relevance of Japan’s system granting refugee status.

“Japan’s system that rescued only 20 individuals (in 2017) is losing the meaning of its existence,” he said.

Among the 20 individuals who were recognized as refugees were five Egyptians, five Syrians and two Afghans.

Four Syrians, three Burmese and 38 other asylum seekers were refused refugee status, but were allowed to stay on in Japan out of humanitarian consideration, according to the ministry.

The ministry defended the outcome of the last year’s asylum application screening, saying it was conducted in accordance with the U.N. Refugee Convention, which went into force in 1954.

According to the convention, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

But critics in and out of Japan say the government’s interpretation is too literal and strict.

Takizawa said that the convention lags behind refugees’ changing circumstances around the world.

“Regarding applicants who do not fit in the definition of a refugee, Japan should introduce a measure to give them legal protection, rather than a residence permit based on ‘humanitarian consideration,’” he said.

According to the ministry, applications seeking refugee status were filed by individuals from 82 countries in 2017, most of them in Asia.

The Philippines, at 4,895, topped the list of applications, followed by Vietnam, at 3,116; Sri Lanka, at 2,226; Indonesia at 2,038; and Nepal, at 1,450.

No asylum seekers from the top 10 countries were recognized as refugees.

“In those countries, the situation does not exist to spawn refugees, and many are applying for the purpose of working,” a ministry official said.

Since 2010, the ministry has allowed those who entered Japan on short-term visas, study or technical intern trainee visas to start working six months after submitting an asylum application.

The practice caught the attention of people in many Asian countries and elsewhere, which the ministry said explains the rapid surge in applications.

But the ministry said applications are now in decline after it began to restrict a residence and work permit in January to dissuade ineligible people from applying.