On 20 March 2014, the Immigration Bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) released their statistics for asylum claims processed in 2013 (Heisei 25), announcing that only six out of 3,777 requests for refugee protection were granted (0.1% approval rate). It is striking that all Syrian asylum-seekers have been rejected. Ten days after the statistics were published, it was reported that two asylum-seekers died in an immigration detention center only a few months after the death of a Rohingya asylum-seeker at another detention facility. APRRN calls for an immediate review as the legitimacy and efficacy of Japan’s domestic refugee protection systems are called into question.
APRRN believes that Japan, as one of the first countries in the region to sign the Refugee Convention, as one of the largest contributors to refugee protection globally, and as the first in the region to begin resettling refugees from abroad, has the potential to be a leader in the Asia Pacific region for refugee protection, and calls on the Government of Japan to step up its protection work domestically; ensuring that those refugees whose protection it is the responsibility of Japan to provide for, do not fall through the cracks.
■ Japan Rejected 99.9% of the Asylum Applications it considered in 2013
In 2013 the number of refugees requesting protection was 3,260, a record high for the third year in a row. According to the MOJ, asylum was granted to only six people in 2013, the lowest number since 1997 and a recognition rate of 0.1% (six out of 3,777 decisions processed). According to the official statistics, three of the six were approved on the first instance, while three were approved on appeal. However, one of the three cases approved on “first instance” was actually on remand from the court, meaning the applicant’s case was first rejected before being sent back to the first instance for reconsideration. Therefore, in fact, four of the six granted cases were initially rejected.
In 2005, the system of including refugee adjudication counselors at the appeal stage of RSD was introduced to increase neutrality, fairness, and transparency. According to reports, in 2013 MOJ rejected an additional 4 cases (7 people) on appeal, despite receiving initial approval by the refugee adjudication counsellors. This means that the Minister of Justice overturned the few grants of asylum that were made at the appeal stage, 4 out of 7 times.
2012 saw similarly dismal figures in Japan when 18 out of 3,194 cases processed were approved for a 0.56% recognition rate, and 2011 saw 21 approved out of 2,999 cases processed for a 0.7% recognition rate. In 2011, 18 of the recognized cases were Burmese, three were of other nationalities. In 2012, 15 of the recognized cases were Burmese, three were of other nationalities. In 2013, three of the recognized cases were Burmese, three were of other nationalities. Looking at the cases granted asylum each year, the reason for the lower recognition rate becomes clear: fewer Burmese cases are being granted, with no change in the number of grants to other nationalities.
■ Every Syrian Refugee Applicant Rejected
In the House of Representatives Budget Committee Meeting on February 26, 2014, Kiyohiko Toyama of the New Komeito Party asked the MOJ for statistics on the acceptance and status of Syrian refugees in Japan. The response was that 52 applications for refugee protection had been received since 2011. So far decisions have been made in 34 cases, and so far, all 34 cases have been denied refugee status. Instead 33 of the 34 cases were given “humanitarian status.”
■ Japan Grants Humanitarian Status instead of Refugee Status
According to MOJ, the Immigration Bureau granted special permission to stay for humanitarian reasons to 151 people in 2013. Under Japan law this status is given if there are “special reasons” for permitting a person’s stay in Japan. The exact criteria of “special reasons” are not disclosed, but MOJ may generally take into consideration elements such as past clean record, family links, or the situation in the country of origin. This status is generally considered an act of pure discretion. A person cannot apply for it, and they cannot appeal if they are denied it, but nevertheless, they may sometimes be given this status after being told that their refugee application has been rejected. A humanitarian status holder is not afforded all of the rights guaranteed by the Refuge Convention and does not have the same access to services that a refugee status holder does. For example, non-refoulement is not guaranteed, there is a delay in the grant of permanent residence, there is a denial of government settlement services offered to refugees, and family re-unification is denied until you can successfully change your status to long-term or permanent residence. Under international law refugees cannot usually be lawfully denied refugee status and given some other kind of complementary status (like humanitarian status) instead; but in the context of Japan’s refugee status determination system, this seems to be a way for Japan to ensure that they retain full discretion with regard to refugee applicants. Even if we do include the humanitarian status holders alongside the refugee status holders we only bring the rate of acceptance up to 4%.
■ Applicants spend years in a never-ending process of appeals:
With the increase in the number of applications and the fact that virtually all of them are rejected, thousands of asylum-seekers spend years going through administrative and judicial appeals with little to no hope of refugee status awaiting them at the end of the process. The immigration department is trying to issue the first instance decision within 6 months. However, after an initial rejection an administrative appeal usually takes one year at a minimum. If you appeal to court, it usually takes around 1 year at each of the 3 levels of the judicial process, resulting in a 3-5 year minimum that sometimes approaches a decade before resolution. Years are lost, many of them spent in destitution unnecessarily, and the result is deterioration in mental and physical well-being for an already vulnerable group while wading their way through an opaque bureaucratic process.
■ Asylum-Seekers Die in Japan Immigration Detention
APRRN is also deeply concerned about the recent deaths in immigration detention in Japan and calls for a review of Japan’s current detention policy. On March 30, a Cameroonian man who was detained after he requested asylum at the airport this past October, died while still in detention nearly 6 months later. A few days before that, an Iranian man died after choking on his dinner. These two deaths come only months after a Rohingya asylum-seeker collapsed and died in another facility. The recent deaths would seem to be connected to the facility staff’s lack of capacity for emergency response to health issues, as well as the generally inadequate health care. The two most recent deaths underscore the lack of accountability for past failures and raise concerns about a consistent under-responsiveness to clear medical need. According to reports detainees consistently complain of neglect and lack of medical care when it comes to their health complaints. This is on top of the negative impact that detention is known to have on physical and mental health anyway.
Advocates in Japan note that detainees can apply for “provisional release” if they have an address outside detention, a guarantor willing to take responsibility for them, and guarantee money from Y300,000 to Y3,000,000 (approximately 3,000USD to 30,000USD). In practice, detainees submit the same application for provisional release over and over, get rejected without reasons multiple times, and eventually the authorities approve it without reasons provided.
International human rights standards prohibit arbitrary and prolonged detention and require detention to only be used as a last resort. Any use of detention must also be independently reviewed and monitored. Evidence has shown that prolonged detention leads to increased vulnerability and fails to meet any legitimate government objectives. APRRN calls for an immediate inquiry into the deaths of detainees in Ushiku Detention Center, and calls for an investigation into the conditions across all centers, with an emphasis on the procedures for emergency response, the provision of regular health care and quality of medical treatment.
APRRN Calls for Immediate Review of Japan’s Domestic Refugee Protection Systems
1.APRRN expresses concern about the low recognition rate and calls for a review of the refugee recognition procedures in Japan to ensure that all persons have access to timely and fair status determination procedures without fear of refoulement, expulsion or punishment, including measures to ensure due process of law, access to information, effective and competent interpretation and translation services, a right to legal representation, and impartial and trained decision-making in accordance with internationalAPRRN takes note of the call by national civil society for an independent refugee protection law, and encourages lawmakers to put forward the “5 points” laid out by Japan civil society.
2.APRRN urges the Government of Japan to show solidarity with the international community in its response to the crisis in Syria, by upholding asylum principles and ensuring access to their territory, access to asylum procedures, and harmonizing their approach to reviewing and granting asylum claims.
3.APRRN urges the Government of Japan to interpret the criteria for refugee status in the Refugee Convention in such a manner that all persons who fulfil these criteria are duly recognized and protected under those instruments, rather than being accorded a complementary form of protection
4.APRRN calls for an immediate investigation into the deaths of detainees in Ushiku Detention Center with publication of, and accountability for, the results; and into the conditions in immigration detention across all centers, with an emphasis on the procedures for medical access, including emergency medical care.
5.APRRN takes note of the existence of a Memorandum of Understanding between the MOJ, Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and the Forum for Refugees Japan (national NGO network) with a mandate to consult on improvements to refugee protection systems and “alternatives to detention”, and calls on these groups to give practical meaning to the requirement that detention be used only as a last resort, and that all alternatives are explored.
While APRRN statements are prepared in consultation with APRRN members, they do not necessarily reflect the views of all APRRN members.
 Ministry of Justice, 平成２５年における難民認定者数等について (3260 applied in 2013) (http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri03_00099.html); 平成２4年における難民認定者数等について(2,545 applied in 2012) (http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri03_00094.html); 平成２3年における難民認定者数等について(1,867 applied in 2011) (http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri03_00085.html)
 See FN1: Ministry of Justice, 平成２５年における難民認定者数等について
 Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, 2013年の日本の難民認定状況に関する声明, 2 April 2014 http://www.jlnr.jp/statements/2014/jlnr_statement_201404_j.pdf
 The question and answer session was recorded and is available at the House of Representatives Internet TV: http://www.shugiintv.go.jp/jp/index.php. An informal transcript of the relevant excerpts is available at: http://www.refugee.or.jp/jar/news/2014/02/26-0000.shtml (Jpn only)
 The Japan Times, “Two Men Die at Immigration Center”, 31 March 2014 http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/31/national/two-men-die-at-immigration-center/#.Uz7PZnf8aP0
 The Japan Times, System ‘Failing Asylum Seekers’, 2 November 2013 http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/11/02/national/system-failing-asylum-seekers/#.Uz7P43f8aP0
 ICCPR, Article 9; CRC 37 the UN General Assembly, Human Rights Commission, and UNHCR Guidelines also give detailed explanation of the legal standards and prohibitions
 ICCPR, Article 7, 10, 18; ICESCR, Article 11, 12; CAT, Article 11, 16; CRC 22, 28, 31
 Ministry of Justice, 「難民認定手続等に関する市民団体との協力関係に係る覚書について」 (“Memorandum of Understanding signed in partnership with civil society organizations on refugee status determination procedures”) February 2013, (available at: http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri03_00084.html)