Japan’s flawed system of refugee protection is under further stress due to an alleged increase in individuals allegedly falsifying asylum claims.
Last week, Asahi Newspaper reported on several incidences of false refugee recognition applications currently being investigated by police (translated from Japanese).
While the number of applications for refugee recognition has been rapidly increasing, there is a strong likelihood that the system is being abused by those who have lost their visa status as a means to remain in Japan for at least the duration of their application screening.
The journalist cites the following examples of related offences:
A 42 year old Turkish man in Saitama Prefecture entered Japan 15 years ago on a short-term stay visa and remained in the country as an illegal over stayer. Sometime later, he applied for refugee recognition and without any income or assets, he qualified to receive welfare support totalling 1,000,000 yen between January and August of 2009. It was later established, however, that he had concealed 500,000 yen savings in a bank account. The man was then arrested on suspicion of fraud last April. Another male involved in the enquiry has testified that “In order to illegally receive welfare payments, he submitted a false application for refugee protection”.
In September of the same year, three out of five members of an Iranian smuggling group arrested on suspicion of selling illicit drugs, subsequently submitted applications for refugee recognition.
Separate incidents involved individuals detained at Immigration Bureaus who were awaiting forced deportation due to arrest or imprisonment. It is alleged that unnamed individuals used refugee applications to secure provisional release and were then involved in illicit drug smuggling group activities.
It is very likely that this is sensationalist journalism and the problem is not as severe as the article implies. The connection between refugee protection visas and criminal activity is barely substantiated. It is possible that said individuals were genuine refugees anyway and the article presents no evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, it does raise a valid concern. If there are people falsifying refugee applications to remain in Japan, disregarding for now any correlation with criminal activity, what are the implications for those that are genuine and for whom returning home is not an option?
Recently, an active advocate and founder of a small voluntary organisation supporting refugees in Japan came to me with somewhat of an ethical dilemma. She had noticed, she confided, an increase in foreigners in detention using an application for refugee protection as a means to prolong their stay in Japan. The stories told by such individuals clearly do not fall within the definition of ‘refugee’, she continued, but for many, a refugee application represents a last ditch effort to remain in Japan prior to deportation. Particularly given this country’s known reputation for lengthy refugee application assessments, the right to multiple rejection appeals and provisional release into the community.
Of course, I’m sure this happens in many countries. But the difference is that Japan’s system is weak and ill-equipped to respond. And resources are scarce. Support for asylum seekers is limited to a handful of volunteers and small voluntary organisations working around the clock. They are trying, with all their passion for the cause, to fill the shoes of a response effort which in many countries would involve multiple agencies and millions of dollars in government-backed funding.
So, what to do when someone puts forward a refugee claim and there’s justifiable reason to believe they are not a refugee? My colleague and her organisation support them, regardless. After all, it is not their position to judge one way or the other. But when this takes away from time supporting those genuinely fleeing persecution in their home countries, ethically, she admits its a challenge.
It’s also a question of how bogus claims influence public perception of refugees at large. For a government who seems capable of finding any reason not to grant a refugee protection visa, this does all kinds of damage to future applicants being taken seriously. Not to mention the impact media stories like Asahi’s have on shaping a barely existent public consciousness of refugees in Japan.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter. The system should function regardless of a few individuals trying to manipulate it for their own intentions. But amidst glimpses of progress which suggest Japan’s refugee protection system is capable of changing for the better, for advocates dedicating hours of unpaid time to support those who most need it, and for the thousands of genuine refugees in Japan whose future and safety ride on their legitimacy as ‘refugees’, it’s a real concern.