In 1981, Japan first acceded to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981. On this date, over 30 years ago, Japan first formalised their legal commitment under international law to fairly assess and offer protection to any persons arriving on its shore claiming to be a refugee. This commitment entails adherence to the fundamental principles of non-discrimination, non-penalisation and non-refoulement as well as meeting basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees which include access to courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation. The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalised for their illegal entry or stay (Ie. Being arbitrarily detained due to immigration or criminal offences related to the seeking of asylum).
A Brief History
Refugee reception in Japan was first thrust forward as a key domestic issue in the late 1970s when large numbers of Indo-Chinese refugees (from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) began to arrive. Without suitable legal framework and social support systems in place, the country was ill-prepared to deal with such an influx. It took strong pressure from the international community for Japan to eventually sign the Convention and agree to play their part in the global response to Indo-China’s refugee crisis.
The signing marked a promise of protection and hope to Indo-Chinese refugees at the time. Further, it proffered a commitment to millions of refugees worldwide that Japan would be a country where one would be treated fairly, with dignity and with full concern for one’s individual situation. 11,000 Indo-Chinese refugees were accepted and resettled for a new life in Japan.
Rather than enacting a new Refugee Protection Law, Japan instead chose to amend the Immigration Control Law, which became the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law in 1981. Today, this remains the law pertaining to all refugees seeking protection in Japan. In short, refugee status is decided by the Immigration Bureau of the Ministry of Justice at first instance and on appeal.
So, as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, has Japan upheld its legal and moral responsibility to protect the rights of refugees?
First, a snapshot of some of the other signatories to the Convention:
In Japan between 1982 – 2008 there were only 7000 claims for asylum submitted:
- 500 were approved as refugees
- 882 were granted humanitarian status (special permission to stay)
- 5618 were rejected (80% of total applicants)
From these numbers alone, it is obvious that Japan’s response is falling way short of what is expected of the world’s wealthiest nations.
UNHCR’s statistics agree. In 2004 they ranked Japan as 48th out of 50 industrialised countries in relation to the number of refugees accepted per 1,000 of population.**For information about the countries of origin of asylum seekers in Japan, see here
Fast forward to the past few years and some small indications of change begin to emerge:
- In 2009 the law is amended to combine the information collected via the Immigration Control Act (the work of the Immigration Bureau) and the Alien Registration (work of municipalities). It is expected that combining social service provision and taxation will result in better functioning of services for asylum seekers.
- An immigration detention facilities visiting committee is established in July 2010 to ensure openness of treatment, and improvement of the operation of detention facilities by reporting to the directors of these facilities.
- The number of approved refugee applications is noticeably increasing. In 2008, refugee status was approved to 57 people. A tiny number, but a four-fold increase on 10 years ago.
- In 2011, Japan accepts its first 27 refugees from Burma as part of a UN-backed third-country pilot resettlement program which will see up to 90 Burmese refugees resettled to Japan over a three year period.
- In 2012, the Japanese Government announces that its pilot resettlement program will be extended for a further two years.
Today, we have arrived at an interesting point in the history of Japan’s refugee situation. A time which the UNHCR together with the rest of the world are watching very carefully. With millions displaced globally will Japan take the measures called for to improve conditions for refugees? With the recent devastation of the March 11 earthquake, a rapidly declining population and a stagnant economy the Japanese Government certainly has a huge task on their hands, but this shouldn’t divert from their obligations to other vulnerable members of society. These are legal obligations after all. Let’s not forget that for refugees, every day in Japan is a struggle.