Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 15:02 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Japan

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Japan , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 22 November 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.

More than 6,500 refugees and asylum seekers were in Japan at the end of 2002. These included some 5,900 Indochinese refugees (Vietnamese and Cambodians) admitted before 2002 who remained in Japan with temporary status; 144 Indochinese refugees admitted from overseas during the year; 14 persons granted asylum during the year; 174 persons with pending asylum claims; 250 rejected asylum seekers remaining in Japan under various permits based on humanitarian concerns (including 40 persons granted such permits during 2002); and 24 refugees recognized under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

UNHCR does not confer mandate status on asylum applicants whose claims are still pending with the Japanese government (although it provides opinions to the government on certain cases). However, UNHCR may confer mandate status on persons denied asylum by Japan who have strong grounds for recognition.

Japan has an ongoing family-reunification program for close relatives of Indochinese refugees resettled in earlier years. During 2002, Japan admitted 144 refugees from overseas (135 Vietnamese and 9 Cambodians).

Of more than 10,900 Indochinese refugees who were admitted to Japan (or who otherwise entered Japan and were later granted protection) between 1978 and 2001, some 5,900 remained in Japan under temporary residence permits, mostly valid from one to three years. Although Japan regularly renews such permits and allows holders to apply for permanent residence after five years, the government does not normally grant permanent residence until the individual has demonstrated his or her eligibility, including "good conduct," throughout a lengthy period – often ten years, according to sources in Japan.

The Japanese government claims that the status of the Indochinese with one- to three-year permits is stable, because the permits are normally extended and the holders can work, travel freely, own property, and obtain various benefits. However, both UNHCR and the U.S. Committee for Refugees count these 5,900 Indochinese as refugees, as this status is not durable within the sense of the Refugee Convention.


During the year, 250 persons applied for asylum in Japan. Most asylum applicants were from Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma. The government adjudicated 225 applications, approving 14 (6 percent) in the first instance and rejecting 211. No asylum applications were granted upon appeal. At year's end, 174 cases were pending first-instance decisions, with another 98 cases pending appeal.

Requests for asylum must be filed within 60 days of arrival in Japan or after the need for protection arises, unless unavoidable circumstances prevent timely application. UNHCR has estimated that mere procedural grounds such as the "60-day rule" account for about half of all rejected asylum applications in Japan. However, the government contends that it considers even post-60-day claims because it takes into account the persecution claim in determining whether the reasons for delay were unavoidable.

During 2002, Japan considered extending or eliminating the filing deadline, with a decision expected in 2003.

During the year, Japan allowed 40 rejected asylum applicants to remain in the country with various special resident permits based on humanitarian concerns, including civil war in their home countries. The permits are effective for one to three years and are generally renewable. At year's end, 250 persons with such special residence permits remained in Japan.

In August, Japan announced that it would begin providing persons granted asylum with the same settlement services already provided to Indochinese refugees, such as Japanese language and vocational training. The government had not enacted this change by the end of 2002, and was reportedly considering limitations on access to certain benefits.

The government also considered issuing temporary residence permits to undocumented immigrants who applied for asylum. UNHCR has long urged the government to issue such permits to ensure that asylum seekers are not subject to arrest and deportation. Japan said that otherwise undocumented asylum applicants would have to agree to be housed at a state-run refugee center in Tokyo, which would expedite the asylum adjudication process. At year's end, the government had not yet enacted this change.

The government's review of its asylum program, and the proposed reforms, resulted from widespread criticism of Japan's treatment of refugees following a May 8 incident at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China. When a family of North Koreans sought protection at the consulate, Chinese police wrestled a woman to the ground in front of her two-year-old daughter – an image shown in videos and photos throughout Asia and elsewhere. Although China eventually permitted the family to go to South Korea, the Japanese public was outraged by the consular officials' apparent cooperation in the seizure.

Restrictive Measures

Under Japan's immigration law, all persons who arrive without proper documents – including those who subsequently seek asylum – are initially detained. If an individual raises a refugee claim, immigration examiners assess that claim and may grant provisional release based on such factors as the strength of the claim or the applicant's financial circumstances and character. Critics have said that immigration examiners often deny provisional release until the applicant has been detained for months or even a year.

In a May 17 report entitled Welcome to Japan?, Amnesty International said, "The treatment of foreign nationals in detention facilities at Japanese ports of entry reveals a disturbing pattern of human rights violations, including ill-treatment and incommunicado detention." The report also described Japan's refusal of entry to asylum seekers, noting that such refusals have increased since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Nongovernmental organizations and UNHCR have also expressed concern that Japan, like other industrialized countries, uses visa restrictions and other strategies to prevent would-be asylum seekers from reaching Japan. For example, under a readmission agreement with China, the Japanese coast guard intercepts vessels carrying undocumented Chinese and returns most to China without allowing them to enter Japan or seek asylum.

UNHCR noted some positive developments regarding Japan's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers during the year. These include more court decisions in favor of asylum seekers in 2002 than in all past years.

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