Tokyo Considers Accepting More Asian Refugees Amid Wider Debate Over Immigration
Ahead of an extraordinary session of the National Diet beginning on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, the Japanese government announced on Monday, Oct. 22, that it would consider amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to increase the number of refugees it accepts each year.
Japan has a notoriously low acceptance rate of refugees, especially when compared to other developed countries. Among the member states of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan (along with Israel) hold the record of accepting the lowest number of refugees. In 2017, the Japanese government granted refugee status to 20 out of 19,628 applicants seeking asylum, or roughly 0.1% of applicants.
While Japan has received much international criticism over its low asylum-granting rate, public opinion in Japan is still reluctant to support a policy to accept more asylum seekers into the country. Well-established far right groups have long vocally opposed accepting refugees while many others come short of supporting such policies due to political risk, economic considerations, or societal pressures.
Furthermore, despite the low acceptance rate, the number of refugee status applications submitted to the Japanese government is increasing — 2017 saw an 80% increase in the number of applications from 2016, when 28 out of nearly 11,000 requests were granted. Tokyo points to the fact that it began granting work permits in 2010 to asylum seekers with valid visas while their refugee application was processes, which has caused a rise in “bogus” applications from those non-asylum seekers simply seeking work.
The possible amendment of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act comes amid the government’s efforts to address a growing labor shortage. Japan’s working-age population — those aged 15 to 64 — is expected to decrease by more than 40% over the next 50 years; in contrast, those aged 75 or older (the “super-elderly”) are expected to make up more than 25% of the population by mid-century. This burgeoning demographic shift is already visible in sectors that require hard labor, such as in the construction industry, where one-third of construction workers across Japan are 55 or older. In the agricultural sector, 60% of the workers are 65 or older, with a nationwide average age of farm workers sitting at 67.
The third-country resettlement program, which is at the center of proposed changes to the Act, is conducted in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR seeks applicants while the Japanese government reviews each application and decides on who to grant refugee status. A possible amendment would be accepting refugees twice a year, as opposed to once a year, which the government currently does. Currently, Tokyo sets a ceiling of around 30 Asian refugees per year, with the vast majority of them being Rohingya refugees fleeing the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
In addition to this amendment, the government is looking to support resettlement of refugees in rural areas. The current resettlement program allows refugees to stay in Tokyo for 6 months to learn the language, and move to where they would settle. While most past participants in the program have resettled in the Tokyo metropolitan area, the government is reportedly looking to encourage refugees to live in rural areas — many of which face declining populations — to support these shrinking local economies.
Currently, refugee status in Japan gives asylum seekers a renewable “long-term” resident status of 1 or 3 years. Once recognized, refugees much apply with the respective central and local government bodies and agencies in order to secure benefits — including Japan’s national health insurance scheme and welfare assistance — and officially receive clearance to work in Japan via a valid work visa. Under the current immigration scheme, the Japanese government also sponsors programs that provide job training for foreign workers with working visas.
The government’s plan to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act has drawn criticism on humanitarian, political, and practical grounds.
Critics of the plan to issue more working visas and refugee status point out the harsh conditions that many face in these job trainings. The trainees are required to stay with the employer for three years, which has led to abuses, including underpayment and overdue salaries. In addition, the current program bars them from bringing their spouses into the country.
Additionally, leaders from the myriad opposition parties in the Diet have pointed to the vagueness of the government’s proposal and condemned the apparent intention by the ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the conservative Buddhist Komeito — to railroad the bill through the extraordinary Diet session. In statements delivered at an Oct. 17 meeting of all parties’ Diet Affairs Committee chairpersons, opposition parties — spanning the political spectrum from the far-left Communist Party of Japan to the far-right Nippon Ishin no Kai — consistently pointed to possible human rights issues and the lack of debate over the government’s proposed immigration reforms as reasons to oppose the government’s push.
Some LDP members have already expressed their concerns over the possible amendment as well. Critical members have pointed to the possible deterioration of public safety due to the increase in the number of foreigners in the country. Other members of the LDP rank-and-file have stated that the government must focus on increasing the employment of Japanese people to solve the labor shortage instead of accepting more refugees into the country. Sources have indicated to Japanese media that some members of the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito are also uneasy over the proposed changes to refugee policy and seek more time to fully examine the proposed legislation before a full vote in the Diet.