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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #152: February 28, 2005

Japan's Asylum Record Challenges Security Council Bid

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

Japan characterizes itself as a humanitarian power committed to promoting human security and human rights. In part, based on this platform, Japan is bidding for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Certainly, on the humanitarian level, Japan is one of the primary donors to the United Nations. It has been active in contributing peacekeeping troops in post-conflict situations and remains as one of the largest providers of refugee and disaster assistance in the world. As the second wealthiest country, this level of commitment should be expected. However, Japan's posture towards refugees and asylum seekers in its own borders is shockingly reprehensible and widely incommensurate to its capability and indeed its responsibility as a G-7 country.

According to UNHCR statistics, Japan recognized only 91 asylum seekers as refugees during a 10-year period between 1992 and 2001. In contrast, countries such as the United Kingdom, US, France, Germany and Austria opened their doors to tens of thousands. It is important to keep in mind that during this period, the world witnessed some of the most atrocious human rights crises of the twentieth century. These include the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo as well as the genocide in Rwanda. Making Japan's record even more astonishing is the fact that a Japanese national, Sadako Ogata, headed the UNHCR during that period. Logically, her presence as the High Commissioner should have given the refugee issue more visibility in Japan as a human rights concern and priority.

The Japanese government's defense of its abysmal record stresses the importance of excluding economic migrants from its borders. While illegal immigration is an important problem, this should not deter the Japanese government from guaranteeing human rights. According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention), to which Japan is a state party, the general definition of a refugee is someone who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted ... is outside his country of nationality." When one examines the number of asylum seekers to Japan according to their place of origin during the years 1994-2003, there is a direct correlation between their country of origin and the level of human rights abuses. In Japan's case, the top four countries producing asylum applications during this time period were Myanmar (111), Turkey (77), the Islamic Republic of Iran (25) and China (22) (statistics taken from the 2003 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook). The fact that citizens of Turkey, Iran and China consistently rank among the highest applicants for asylum also to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, countries not known for their economic prowess and yet receive over 10,000 asylum applications a year, should indicate that the primary motive held by many of these asylum seekers is not economic but human rights related.

Punctuating Japan's alarming disregard for the human rights of asylum seekers was its "unprecedented" deportation of two Turkish Kurds recognized as refugees under the UNHCR's 1951 statute in January 2005 (See UNHCR Press Release, 18 January 2005). In advance of their deportation, the UNHCR sent a note verbale urging Japan's Minister of Justice not to send these refugees back based on the fact that this act would represent a violation of Japan's obligations under international refugee law. Making matters worse, Japan's decision to deport was implemented even while the UNHCR was desperately trying to find a third country to resettle these two refugees.

As if this were not enough, on January 21, 2005, Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action to all of its members warning about the fears regarding the imminent forcible deportation of five more Turkish Kurds and their family members whom Amnesty deemed were in risk of being detained without charge, tortured or ill-treated upon return to Turkey. These five were also recognized as refugees by the UNHCR in October 2004.

Japan has contributed financially to refugee support projects overseas, however, it must accept and protect more refugees domestically if its claim to be a country that upholds human rights and promotes human security is to be credible. Japan's utter refusal to accept human rights refugees as asylum seekers and its willingness to deport individuals and families in threat of being tortured and imprisoned without charge questions Japan's most basic qualifications as a potential Security Council member. This systematic policy that defies international law must be reversed if Japan is to be regarded as a respectable world leader.

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