Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2017, 11:43 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Japan

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Japan , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 22 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


At the end of 1999, nearly 400 refugees and asylum seekers were in Japan. This included 158 refugees resettled from overseas (all Vietnamese), 16 persons granted asylum, individuals in 171 pending asylum cases, and 21 refugees recognized under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – of whom seven were denied asylum by the Japanese government. Another 40 to 50 persons denied asylum were granted special resident status because of humanitarian concerns.

Nine of the UNHCR mandate refugees were Vietnamese. Japan gave them temporary residence permits, upon UNHCR's request, so that they could work while awaiting third-country resettlement. No Vietnamese repatriated during the year.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) visited Japan in July to assess its asylum and refugee admissions system. Although a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and a major donor to UNHCR, Japan continued to admit the fewest refugees of all industrialized countries except South Korea in 1999, according to UNHCR. Nevertheless, Japanese officials said that "any refugee can apply for protection in Japan at any place and any time."

At the beginning of 1999, 117 applications for asylum were pending with the Japanese government. During the year, another 260 persons applied for asylum. The government adjudicated 190 applications, approving 13 (7 percent) in the first instance (with 3 cases approved on appeal) and rejecting 177 (93 percent). Another 16 persons withdrew their cases. At the end of the year, 171 cases were pending.

Japan did not release information on the nationalities of persons who applied for or received asylum. However, UNHCR said that most new applicants were from Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan, and Iran.

Asylum Law and Procedure

UNHCR said that Japan considerably shortened its asylum adjudication time in 1999 – saying it was previously "the longest procedure in the OECD" (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) – and that it began recognizing roughly equal numbers of Asians and non-Asians.

Under Japan's "60-day rule," requests for asylum must be filed within 60 days of arrival in the country (or 60 days after the need for protection arose), unless justifiable reasons existed for the delay. In 1999, according to UNHCR, the government considered all applications submitted after the deadline but often denied them for failure to provide justifiable reasons for the delay.

In July, Japan ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, which stipulates that signatories will not return a person to a country where he or she may be subject to torture. By year's end, however, Japan had not adopted implementing legislation or regulations.

During the year, Japan allowed some rejected asylum applicants to remain in Japan under "special humanitarian" (SH) status, renewable on a yearly basis. While not indicating the number, government officials said they began using this status in the asylum context in 1998 when backlog reductions revealed that some applicants had been in Japan for several years and had deep ties to the community. UNHCR estimated that three times the number of recognized refugees were granted SH status during the year (perhaps 40 to 50 persons).

In May, in response to an appeal by UNHCR, the justice ministry made the rare decision to overturn a denial of refugee status to three Burmese pro-democracy activists.

During the year, Japan continued to deny asylum to Chinese nationals fleeing their country's one-child policy. However, it showed flexibility in granting visa extensions for Chinese student dissidents.

Restrictive Measures

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and UNHCR expressed concern that Japan, like the United States and much of Europe, was using visa requirements, airline sanctions, and other strategies to prevent would-be asylum seekers from reaching Japan.

Japan continued to implement amendments made in 1997 to its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law. The changes were aimed at reducing undocumented immigration. Under the law's mandatory detention provision, undocumented arrivals must be detained. However, if an individual raises a refugee claim, immigration examiners are to assess that claim and may grant provisional release while the claim is being adjudicated. Refugee advocates have criticized the policy, saying immigration examiners often deny provisional release until the applicant has been detained for at least one year.

According to UNHCR, some positive developments regarding Japan's detention practices occurred in 1999. The government granted provisional release to all UNHCR mandate refugees during the year, including one who had been in detention after serving a criminal sentence. Undocumented asylum seekers who applied before being apprehended were not detained, UNHCR added. However, a number of asylum seekers were kept in detention – primarily those who applied for asylum after being apprehended for illegal entry or for having overstayed their visas. UNHCR interviewed 20 such persons and found three of them to be refugees. The government released two, and the other decided to repatriate voluntarily.

Japan sometimes failed to adequately inform asylum seekers arriving at Japan's Narita Airport regarding their right to seek asylum, and often did not provide them reasonable access to UNHCR, USCR found during its July 1999 site visit. Two asylum applicants at the East Japan Immigration Center (a detention facility) told USCR that Japanese officials prevented them from contacting UNHCR upon arrival. One detainee from Iran, whom officials held in a detention room at Narita for several days, said Japanese officials told him, "UNHCR never helps Iranian people." UNHCR said access to asylum seekers at Narita was one of the issues it was discussing with the government. Because Narita is a long distance from Tokyo, where UNHCR is located, UNHCR said it would like to see an NGO monitoring presence at the airport.


During its site visit, USCR attended the first-ever meeting of the Japan Association for Refugees, an umbrella group of NGOs, lawyers, and other refugee advocates. Many of the group's members said NGOs in Japan did not have a tradition of advocacy work with the government, using the courts, or working with the media to advance the cause of refugee protection – a tradition they hoped to develop.

(Revisions to Japan's immigration law became effective in February 2000. Aimed at reducing visa overstays and smuggling – particularly from China – the law imposes stiff penalties on persons illegally entering Japan, even after expiration of the previous three-year statute of limitations. Also under the new law, persons deported from Japan are denied re-entry for at least five years instead of the previous one year.)

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