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Rejection of refugee application in Japan for not being 'convincing' shows system faults

Lawyer Koichi Kodama insists that the Japanese government-drafted revision bill to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act should be abandoned, in a meeting at the House of Councillors Members' Building on April 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

TOKYO -- During recent deliberations on a bill to revise Japan's Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, a former leading justice ministry official made the startling admission that he refused to authorize refugee status for an applicant because he was "not convinced" by the reason for the application.

    The admission, made in a question-and-answer session during a House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee meeting, comes amid ongoing debate on how to determine who is eligible for refugee status. Japan's refugee recognition rate stood at 0.4% in 2019, and its strict screening system has been the target of global criticism. Against such a backdrop, the Mainichi Shimbun examined the views held by those directly involved in screening applications of people who seek asylum in Japan.

    "No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't find the application convincing, so I refused to give my signature," Toshiro Ino, a lower house member for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said during an April 21 Judicial Affairs Committee session. He continued, "At the time it was passed along by a justice ministry official, clerical staff told me that they wanted to recognize this person as a refugee, but even when I listened to the explanations, I couldn't understand why this individual should be considered a refugee."

    Ino served as Parliamentary Vice Minister of Justice following a Cabinet reshuffle during the third Abe administration launched in 2016. He is also a lawyer, and had been a member of the Isesaki Municipal Assembly in Gunma Prefecture before being elected to the lower house for the first time in 2012. He is currently serving his third term.

    "I was what is called the Parliamentary Vice Minister of Justice for one year, and I got just a small taste of the refugee authorization process," Ino said.

    Papers with signatures to be submitted to the Ministry of Justice that demand a review of the Japanese government-drafted bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act are seen at the House of Councillors Members' Building on April 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

    Japan's refugee recognition rate lags far behind the rates of Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, which recorded percentages of 55.7%, 46.2 %, 25.9% and 29.6% respectively in 2019. There have been numerous cases where family members of foreigners who were not eligible for refugee status in Japan were recognized as refugees in other countries. However, Ino said that he has the impression that the number of people who should be saved by being recognized as refugees is actually "much smaller."

    As for the refugee authorization process of Japan as of 2016, regional immigration bureaus investigated applicants' circumstances, and decisions on whether to grant or decline refugee status were made under the justice minister's name. The ministry official who sanctions the decision differs depending on each case, and the Justice Ministry has not revealed details on this process. However, Ino revealed himself that he objected authorizing refugee status in a certain case.

    The case was reported by Justice Ministry staff as one where refugee status should be granted, and the justice minister eventually deemed the case to qualify for refugee status, but how did the case come to be overturned through a political decision?

    During the session, Ino elaborated on his objection to authorizing refugee status, saying, "It's because there is no objective evidence when it comes to refugee status applications. Decision-making relies almost only on how genuine the applicants' statements appear to be."

    Masashi Ichikawa, former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations' Human Rights Protection Committee, who attended the lower house's Judicial Affairs Committee session as an unsworn witness, explained, "Refugees flee from their countries with little more than their own clothes, and for the most part, they don't escape while carrying evidence. The current evidence structure cannot avoid relying fundamentally on statements when it comes to experiences undergone by the individual. The credibility of statements becomes key to granting refugee status." Thus, the specialized ability to gauge whether individuals can be categorized as refugees or not from the statements becomes significant.

    In the first place, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) upholds the principle that those seeking asylum should be given "the benefit of the doubt." The UNHCR's Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status and Guidelines on International Protection states that "cases in which an applicant can provide evidence of all his statements will be the exception rather than the rule. In most cases a person fleeing from persecution will have arrived with the barest necessities and very frequently even without personal documents."

    Lawyer Koichi Kodama insists that the Japanese government-drafted revision bill to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act should be abandoned, in a meeting at the House of Councillors Members' Building on April 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

    The handbook also raises the existence of "statements that are not susceptible of proof," and explains, "In such cases, if the applicant's account appears credible, he should, unless there are good reasons to the contrary, be given the benefit of the doubt."

    The refugee asylum application which Ino refused to sign was ultimately recognized as a case which qualified for refugee status through the executive authority of Katsutoshi Kaneda, justice minister at the time. Ino stated, "I dismissed the case, but as the minister gave his permission, I will go with the minister's decision."

    Have there been past cases where decisions to recognize applicants' refugee status have been reversed at one point by a parliamentary vice minister's decision, as was the situation in Ino's case? In response to such a question made by Manabu Terata of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) during an April 28 Judicial Affairs Committee session, Yutaka Matsumoto, deputy commissioner of the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, stated clearly, "As far as I am aware, there have been no such cases."

    Regarding Ino's remarks, lawyer Koichi Kodama, who participated in the April 21 Judicial Affairs Committee session as an unsworn witness, said, "It's as if he confessed that this is why Japan's refugee recognition system is (arbitrary and thus) broken." The lawyer criticized the former parliamentary vice minister's comments as "a terrible scandal."

    Kodama likened the refugee recognition process to the protection of domestic violence victims. He explained, "In the past, there was an incident where a victim was murdered after being sent home despite claims of receiving domestic abuse, as there was no evidence, and the case was deemed merely a quarrel between the husband and wife. Victims of domestic abuse are now protected for the time being if they seek help, even if there's no evidence. The screening structure of asylum applications is exactly the same. If in the worst-case scenario, the government makes the faulty judgment of sending them back to their countries, and they get killed, it's a serious matter. When in doubt, offering protection is the primary principle of refugee status recognition."

    A 54-year-old Iranian national who had been sitting in on the Judicial Affairs Committee's discussion, said, "In Iran, I was placed in a situation where I didn't know if I would be able to stay alive the next day." Recalling his own experience, he said, "When you don't know what's coming next, it's impossible to have room to think about leaving records (backing refugee status) while envisioning applying for refugee status in Japan (in the future)."

    The man said he had been with rebel forces in Iran and had been subjected to political persecution. He came to Japan in 1990, and has been waiting for the results of his fourth application for refugee status. He expressed anger over the current screening process, saying, "When I faced assault by the military, all I could do was to protect myself. How could I have possibly kept records? I obviously couldn't say something like, 'Let me take a photo real quick.' Moreover, would having photos of assault count as evidence?"

    He said, "Even if you do your best to gather material after coming to Japan, as there are no immigration officials who show expertise in the politics of Iran, it's difficult to think that they can make a proper assessment. Individuals with more specialized knowledge should be appointed to the immigration agency."

    Another issue surrounding Japan's refugee status recognition process is that the Immigration Services Agency in charge of border control is also responsible for refugee protection. During the Judicial Affairs Committee session, Kodama stated, "A border control official would typically think that they have to keep out foreigners who enter the country with fake passports. But an official investigating the state of refugees needs to take a different approach, considering granting refugee status to foreigners who are only capable of obtaining fake passports. It is difficult to have these cases divided up by the same agency. The fundamental problem lies there."

    The bill to revise the immigration law also presents a system where people who are not granted refugee status on their third asylum application could be forcibly deported. Is this the kind of legal revision that should be taken by a country with a refugee recognition rate of 0.4%?

    (Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Digital News Center)

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