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Gov't to tighten refugee status rules to decrease false applications, speed up process

Due to the rapid rise of refugee applications in Japan, the Justice Ministry will change the way it enforces the refugee recognition system on Jan. 15, the ministry announced on Jan. 12.

    The new policy will revise the process by which foreign nationals already possessing a legitimate residency status such as "short-term visitor" who apply for refugee status are automatically granted permission to work after six months. The ministry hopes the changes will cut down the number of false applications aimed only at getting permission to work, and speed up the system to serve its original purpose of protecting refugees.

    In recent years, the number of applicants for recognition as refugees has risen rapidly, clogging the system and raising waiting times for screening results. According to the Justice Ministry, the average screening period is roughly 10 months, and when the filing of complaints afterward is included, it can be some three years before a conclusion is reached. This long process is favorable for applicants who simply want to gain permission to work in Japan, but people who meet the criteria for refugee recognition also get stuck in these unstable circumstances.

    The new policy would target those with "short-term visitor" (maximum stay of 90 days), "student" (maximum stay of four years, three months) and "technical intern" (one year non-renewable) and others who already have legitimate residential statuses, who now make up the majority of the rising number of refugee status applications. Those applying for the first time will be processed separately, undergoing a simple screening to be completed within two months. If the possibility of the applicant being a true refugee is high or if it is deemed that humanitarian arrangements are necessary, then the foreign national will quickly be provided with a residency status allowing them to work.

    On the other hand, those applicants citing "escaping from debt collectors" and other reasons clearly outside the scope of the refugee system will not be granted a new residency status after their current one expires. The ministry will also file papers for their deportation.

    Additionally, for those applying for the first time whose cases are unclear, after the simple screening process, they will be given a six-month residency status that allows them to work. However, those who apply for refugee status after they become unable to fulfill their original visa requirements, such as those who abscond from their technical internships or drop out of school, will be allowed to stay in Japan but not work.

    There is currently no limit to how many times a person can apply to be a refugee, but an individual reapplying after being rejected will in principle be excluded from consideration for refugee status. However, a representative from the ministry's Immigration Bureau said, "We will take into consideration any changes that have occurred in the situation of their home country and handle such cases flexibly."

    The current rise in refugee applicant numbers began in March 2010, when it was decided that those who have filed for the designation would be granted a residence status allowing them to work after six months. As the screening process for certification tended to last a long time, the decision was made to provide economic support. However, while 1,202 people applied in 2010, applicant numbers have set new highs every year since.

    The Justice Ministry reports that between January and September 2017, there were 14,043 refugee applications -- 77 percent more than the same period in 2016 and well above the 10,901 total applications filed that year. When looking at the applicants by nationality, the top five countries of the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Nepal account for roughly 70 percent of the applicants. In addition, those who already had a regular residency status such as "short-term visitor," "student" or "technical intern" accounted for roughly 94.8 percent of the application pool.

    It is estimated that under the Justice Ministry's new policy, roughly 40 percent of applicants already holding legitimate residency status will not be granted a new residency status. On the other hand, there were only 10 recipients of certified refugee status from January to September 2017, and 34 people were allowed to stay in Japan for humanitarian reasons.

    "The international evaluation that 'Japan's interpretation of refugees is too strict' is firmly established, and those who are really in need of protection avoid the process," says Graduate School of Toyo Eiwa University visiting professor Saburo Takizawa, who specializes in Japan's refugee policy. "The new way the ministry enforces the rules on refugee recognition is somewhat unavoidable as a temporary measure. However, we must move to provide as much support as possible, taking a careful look at conditions in the applicant's home country."

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