Amid a growing European crisis, Japan is set to ease strict criteria for defining a person as a refugee, the country's Justice Ministry said Tuesday, according to the Japan Times. But the government will also crack down on those it feels are unqualified applicants.
The government has hailed the move as a complete systemic shift, but some in Japan are critical of the changes. Japan has had a very conservative refugee recognition system and an expert told the Japan Times that the changes announced Tuesday are “completely ineffectual” and indicates the government wants to keep the status quo.
The new policy came after a review from experts of the country's entire immigration policy and is expected make changes to how the country determines which people are eligible for refugee status under the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention. The Justice Ministry of Japan said it would better protect victims of persecution and "properly interpret" the conditions that allow someone to be labeled a refugee, according to the Japan Times. At the same time, they plan to tighten controls on people applying and re-applying for refugee status because they clog the screening process.
Japan has long had a strict interpretation of refugee criteria and it remains unclear exactly how it will loosen its rules. A group of government-appointed experts are expected to make recommendations to that end. But some are critical of the idea that government examiners are the people expected to make changes.
“Why is (the) Immigration (Bureau) proposing utilizing the very people who are part of the current failing system? It’s obvious — because they don’t want to change it,” lawyer Shogo Watanabe said to the Japan Times. “Nothing is going to change.”
Last year, more than 5,000 people applied for refugee status in Japan. Just 11 were accepted. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict-torn countries like Syria have been flooding into Europe. Japan has a history of not allowing those escaping war to qualify for asylum, according to the Independent. It remains unclear if that will change, but should it remain the case, the bulk of people attempting to escape conflict in Syria or Iraq would not qualify.
While just 63 Syrians have applied for refugee status in Japan since 2011, a group from the country was reportedly given temporary residence after attempting to sue the government when their refugee applications were denied.
Hiroaki Sato, an official with the Ministry of Justice, previously said the proposed changes were not intended to either boost or reduce the amount of people accepted into asylum.
“We're not looking to increase or decrease the number of refugees coming to Japan, but to ensure real refugees are assessed quickly,” he said, according to the Independent.