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Editorial: Japan's new refugee status rules lack balance

New stricter refugee status rules became effective on Jan. 15 after the Justice Ministry revised a system in which the government had uniformly granted work permits to those who filed for refugee status six months after the application. Japan has taken a shift in its refugee policy, which would greatly restrict employment of applicants whose number is increasing at a rapid pace.

Under the new policy, applicants are first sorted out into groups after a simple screening. Those who are deemed clearly unqualified for refugee status, such as applicants just seeking to find employment in Japan, will not be allowed to work in the country. Once the authorized period of stay expires, the government will proceed with the deportation process.

In recent years, Japan has seen the number of refugee status applicants spike -- from 1,202 in 2010 to over 10,000 in 2016. Last year, the figure had reached 14,000 by September. This was the result of a policy change in 2010 with an aim to support the lives of the applicants. However, many of the applicants are believed to be people other than those who were forced to leave their home countries due to conflicts.

The introduction of the new rules is expected to curb the number of applicants who do not meet qualifications to be recognized as refugees to a certain extent.

At the same time, the Japanese government needs to understand the reality faced by these applicants. Most of them hold resident status for purposes such as studying in Japan or working as foreign trainees under government-sponsored technical intern programs. While the foreign interns can stay in Japan up to five years, they are not allowed to work outside their designated employment for the first three years.

Many of such interns were exploited by brokers in their home countries and paid a large sum in fees to come to Japan. They are forced to work long hours at the places they have been assigned to in Japan for low pay and usually have to endure severe working conditions. For foreign students, their working hours are restricted to 28 or fewer per week.

It takes about three years for the refugee status application process to be completed. But once the request is filed, the applicant can stay in Japan legally and find better employment. This factor is said to have led to the spike in the number of applicants looking for jobs in Japan.

Furthermore, there is the reality Japan faces in that there are many small- and mid-size factories and farmers that cannot sustain their operations without foreign workers. For many industries struggling to maintain human resources, foreign interns and foreign students are valuable working resources supporting local economies.

Under such circumstances, the Japanese government should introduce policies to accept such foreign workers and improve their working conditions along with the stricter refugee status rules. Yet the government's current efforts seem to lack balance.

Even today, there are businesses that reportedly provide foreign trainees who have run off from their workplaces with forged visas. We cannot let these trainees fall into the hands of illegal businesses.

In Japan, the annual number of cases where refugee status is granted can be as low as nine or less in some years, a far smaller figure compared to global standards. The government needs to pay attention to how its refugee rules are viewed by the international community.

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