Photo/IllutrationA man from an African country spends a few months homeless in Tokyo while waiting for the Immigration Bureau’s decision on his asylum application. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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While the number of foreigners applying for refugee status in 2018 dropped by half from the previous year to 10,493, the number granted doubled to 42, but still far below other Group of Seven nations.

The Justice Ministry on March 27 credited the staggering drop in asylum seekers, the first year-on-year decline in eight years, to a stricter approach aimed at weeding out “fake applications.”

The ballooning number of asylum seekers in Japan peaked at nearly 20,000 in 2017 before the ministry started stricter application procedures in January 2018.

While Japan granted asylum to 42 applicants in 2018, a significant increase from the previous year’s 20, that was not remotely comparable to other G-7 countries that have accepted from thousands to tens of thousands of refugees annually.

The ministry also said Japan has approved residence status for 40 applicants for humanitarian reasons in 2018.

Of the 42 refugees who were granted asylum, 13 were from Congo, five from Yemen and Ethiopia, and four from Afghanistan and China.

The top five countries for applicants were Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines and Pakistan, consisting of 55 percent of all asylum seekers.

The ministry said that many of the asylum seekers who applied for refugee status in Japan are “from countries where there are no existing circumstances that generate large numbers of refugees and evacuees.”

Critics of Japan’s low acceptance of refugees were not impressed by the ministry’s explanation.

Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board of a nonprofit organization called Japan Association for Refugees, welcomed the fact that the ministry granted refugee status to more applicants than the previous year.

However, she said, “We have handled about 600 consultations a year. Based on those experiences, 42 is still not enough.”

According to data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Germany led the G-7 countries in accepting the most refugees, with more than 140,000 in 2017. Japan was at the bottom with 20, far behind Italy's 5,895, which was next to last.

“We are concerned that it is extremely low,” the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in a report September 2018, regarding Japan’s acceptance rate.

Meanwhile, in August 2018, the Tokyo District Court overturned the Immigration Bureau of Japan’s decision to reject an asylum application from an Ethiopian woman.

The woman was detained and sexually assaulted by local police in Ethiopia in 2008 after she refused its order to end her involvement with a woman’s rights group in which she was a core member.

She came to Japan the following month after she was released on bail and applied for refugee status. Her application was rejected in 2011, as was her subsequent appeal.

The woman submitted a wanted notice that had been put out in her home country with her description on it as a proof of her dire situation. However, the bureau, which is part of the Justice Ministry, questioned the document’s authenticity, forcing her to file a lawsuit.

It took 10 years from when she filed an application for refugee status until the court rendered its verdict.

Ishikawa said the ministry “needs to improve the screening standards to international levels and review its handling of cases from the perspective of the asylum seeker’s life security and protection.”

The ministry changed the application process for asylum seekers in 2010, which permitted foreigners seeking asylum to start working six months after they submitted applications following their arrival in Japan on a visa, for example, as exchange students and technical intern trainees.

The change was made to ease the economic burden on applicants, who faced long waits in the screening process.

However, the number of asylum seekers, which was 1,202 in 2010, exploded afterward and continued to increase until it reached a record 19,629 in 2017.

That further delayed the screening time and made it difficult to grant asylum to applicants who truly warranted it.

To speed the process, the ministry introduced a new operation in January 2018 to process applications within two months after submission.

It also started the fast-track rejections of work permits requested by those who didn’t have a “justifiable reason” and those who were clearly ineligible, using such reasons as “having debts in their home country.”

Refugee advocates and human rights organizations are skeptical of the effectiveness of the ministry’s new approach.

Shogo Watanabe, chief of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, pointed out, “The number of foreigners filing an application for refugee status at airports and ports, where they may feel greater urgency have also dropped significantly.”

Watanabe added, “We have received complaints from asylum seekers that they were not even allowed to file an application. It is troubling if the ministry has made filing for asylum difficult.”