Harumi Ozawa / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Diet will soon begin deliberations on a bill revising the nation’s refugee policy for the first time since Japan signed the U.N. refugee convention in 1981. The bill is likely to pass, but immigration advocates are nonetheless disappointed.

In the bill, the Justice Ministry, the supervising agency of the Immigration Bureau, proposes abolishing the 60-day deadline for applicants to file for refugee status, as well as establishing a temporary residential status for asylum-seekers to allow them to stay in Japan after their visas expire.

The bill may be the result of domestic and international criticism of the nation’s refugee policy, especially after the Shenyang incident last year, in which a North Korean family tried to escape into the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang, China, but was taken away by Chinese security officials. This revealed the squeamishness of Japan’s diplomatic missions abroad toward accepting asylum-seekers.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Senior Legal Officer Diego Rosero also pointed out in the commission’s latest newsletter that there is only one article related to asylum-seekers in Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law. He criticized the country for having inadequate laws on refugees, especially compared with other advanced countries.

Though the Justice Ministry views the bill as a reform, many of those working on behalf of asylum-seekers contend the bill would make hurdles higher for those seeking refugee status.

“If the revision is approved, potential refugees could be at risk of deportation even if they were granted refugee status,” said Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer in charge of refugee-related issues for the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

He criticized the Immigration Bureau for adding new conditions to the bill when granting asylum-seekers temporary status, thus enabling it to interpret the law at its discretion.

The Justice Ministry plan would grant temporary residential permits only to asylum-seekers who satisfy conditions, including:

— Applying for refugee-status within six months of their arrival in Japan or within six months after they realize in Japan that they cannot return to their homeland for fear of persecution.

— Entering Japan directly from their home country.

According to the bill, the authorities may not only detain, but may also deport those who fail to meet the new conditions–even if they are recognized as refugees.

Bayram Yildirim, a Kurdish asylum-seeker from Turkey, said he would fail to meet the conditions even if he applied for refugee status under the revised law.

“When I came to Japan, I didn’t know for a long time where and how to file an application,” he said.

He also pointed out the baselessness of the condition requiring asylum-seekers to enter Japan directly.

“We could easily cross the borders with Iran or other neighboring countries by walking or at least by car,” he said.

Yildirim, who has been repeatedly rejected for refugee status in Japan, is still fighting for it in court. He was recognized as a mandate refugee by the UNHCR in 2001.

“Those who entered Japan via a third country would not necessarily be considered not to have entered Japan directly,” said Hideharu Maruyama, deputy counselor of the Immigration Bureau. “We would study each case flexibly based on the U.N. refugee convention.”

According to Maruyama and Takashi Maruoka, subsection chief of the bureau’s Refugee Recognition Office, North Korean defectors, for example, who first enter China to seek asylum in Japan, would not be considered as not entering Japan directly.

However, Watanabe said, “The problem with the current immigration law is its lack of clarity. What’s the point of adding another vague clause like this when revising it?”

Former head of the Immigration Bureau Shunji Kobayashi does not think the real intention of the revision is to relax regulations for potential refugees.

Kobayashi, currently an advisor for Japan Research Institute, Ltd., said, “I think the Immigration Bureau doesn’t want to let people who wouldn’t be beneficial to Japan to enter the country, but also wants to avoid international criticism.”

Kiyohiko Toyama, a New Komeito member of the House of Councillors who chairs the party’s panel on refugee issues, said, “I plan to point out during the Diet’s questioning of the Justice Ministry that the revision would give too much discretionary power to the bureau.”

“But I basically support the bill,” he said. “Unless the session is extended and we have enough time, the bill will pass quickly without drawing much attention.”

Toyama does not expect lawmakers to discuss the revision bill enthusiastically at the Diet. “It’s unfortunate, but how to get along with foreign residents in neighborhoods isn’t the most pressing concern for the general public at present,” he said.

Daily Yomiuri