Photo/IllutrationThe Justice Ministry’s Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in the capital’s Minato Ward (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The number of foreigners applying for refugee status dropped to 5,586 during the first half of this year, the first year-on-year decline in eight years, the Justice Ministry announced on Aug. 31.

The ministry attributed the drop of 2,975 to its new effort to restrict asylum seekers from working during the processing of their applications.

“The number of applications was down because fewer people attempted to abuse Japan’s refugee recognition system so as to land a job,” a ministry official said.

The ministry said it completed the screening of 6,375 applicants over the January-June period, up 1,875 from a year earlier.

Of these, 20 were granted refugee status, compared with two during the first half of 2017.

The number of foreigners seeking asylum has jumped since March 2010, when the ministry permitted them to start working six months after the submission of their applications following their arrival in Japan on a visa, for example, as exchange students and technical intern trainees.

As a result, the number of asylum seekers soared to 19,629 in 2017, compared with 1,202 in 2010.

Alarmed by the steep surge, the ministry introduced in January fast-track rejections of work permits requested by those who are “clearly ineligible” by starting processing their applications within two months after they were submitted.

The ministry said the aim is to correct the widespread perception among foreigners that they are allowed to work while screening of their applications for refugee status is ongoing.

The change is also intended to shorten the examination period, according to the ministry.

Shogo Watanabe, chief of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, criticized the ministry’s approach for being lopsided.

“The Justice Ministry focuses only on reducing the number of asylum applications, not the protection of potential refugees,” he said. “Those who should be granted refugee status were denied and exposed to the danger of deportation after the ministry began operation of the system more stringently.”

Watanabe also criticized the ministry for recognizing only 20 individuals as refugees from January to June.

“Japan’s refugee recognition rate is extremely low, compared with other countries,” he said. “This is a situation that must be overhauled.”

In all of 2017, Japan granted asylum to 20 applicants. The number varied from six to 57 over the past 10 years through 2017.