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Refugee Olympic Team to compete in 2020 Tokyo Olympics

The Refugee Olympic Team marches during the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed on July 9 that a Refugee Olympic Team will compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, following on from the team's debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

    Commenting on the decision, Director General of the Tokyo Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Toshiro Muto, said, "This is a wonderful development. There is a still a lot more to do, but I'm keen to work on the various matters that need to be handled." The move also fits in well with the games' vision of "diversity and harmony."

    With issues concerning refugees becoming increasingly serious, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) teamed up with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to form the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio Olympics.

    The Refugee Olympic Team in 2016 consisted of 10 athletes including the Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, and was lauded as a concept representing hope. The team was present at the games' opening ceremony -- where members paraded under the Olympic flag.

    The athletes were able to compete in the Rio Olympics after leaving their home nations with the help of the national Olympic committees in the countries where they applied for refugee status.

    In the case of the 2016 host nation Brazil, two athletes who applied for refugee status in Brazil after leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo competed in the judo events at the Rio Olympics.

    There are some expectations that Japan-based refugees will similarly be able to compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and these expectations are likely to grow, but as a source close to the government commented, "Compared to the situation in other countries, it is difficult for people to be granted refugee status in Japan. So the question is how to judge (refugee status application criteria) in the future."

    The number of people applying for refugee status in Japan has been rapidly increasing in recent years. In 2016, the number of applications topped 10,000 for the first time, but only 28 people were granted refugee status.

    Compared to other developed nations, the approval rate in Japan is staggeringly low, at 0.2 percent of total applications. One of the reasons is that the Japanese government requires proof that the applicant is a refugee in fear of persecution in his or her home country.

    Unless the criteria are eased and special measures are put in place, it is unlikely that Japan will be able to field Japan-based refugees in 2020.

    A representative of the Japan Association for Refugees commented, "By accepting athletes who are refugees, understanding about refugees should hopefully increase."

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