- Japan has one of the world’s toughest asylum policies. Despite having the third-largest economy, last year the nation accepted only 20 refugees.
- Strict policies, geography, and history have limited asylum-seekers’ access to Japan, while a general preference for its homogeneous society means citizens have little motivation to push for change.
- There is no official immigration policy in Japan, which forced much-needed low-skilled labor workers to gain legal residence via the refugee process. The system is overburdened as a result.
- Japan is facing a demographic time bomb. It’s rapidly shrinking workforce could easily be boosted by thousands of migrant workers and refugees who are not just will, but desperate, for work.
Ammunition is one of the best memories Zahir Amini has of his childhood.
“I enjoyed playing with bullets,” laughs Amini. “It was a popular toy when I was a kid.”
Born in Afghanistan, Amini grew up surrounded by shell casings and abandoned weapons that littered the streets after a decade-long Soviet Union occupation ended in 1989. A reprieve was supposed to follow, but instead civil war erupted.
The Taliban gained control and soon began persecuting ethnic minorities, including Amini and his family.
“It was dangerous at times, very dangerous. I saw lots of my friends die, stepping on mines and things like that,” he told Business Insider.
Amini, who requested his name be changed to protect his safety and that of his family, was under 10 years old when his family fled across the border to seek refuge in Pakistan. But life was nothing like what the Amini family had imagined.
Once in Pakistan, the family’s ethnic group, the Hazaras, were an even smaller minority, and they felt more targeted than ever. While some Pakistanis left to become Taliban fighters, many more – including police – dealt out abuse, discrimination, and death threats.
“They would write on the walls of the building and the houses, ‘You people are infidels.’ Which is a sign of threat, that we will kill you in time,” Amini recalled.
His family spent a decade in Pakistan, moving frequently, while Amini’s father was in Japan. After entering the country on business, the situation in Afghanistan changed and he applied for asylum. He spent the following years fighting to be recognized as a refugee.
Finally, in the late 2000s, he was granted a visa and the Amini family emigrated the following year.
The government provided little help and with no financial support, no language lessons, and just Amini’s father working, the family struggled for years.
They were one of the lucky ones.
Refugees need not apply
Japan has the third-largest economy on the planet, but in the last five years, has granted refugee status to fewer than 100 people.
In 2013, just six applications were approved. Eleven people made the cut the following year, followed by 27 in 2015. Out of the 10,901 people who applied in 2016, just 28 were granted refugee status in Japan. The number of applications jumped to more than 19,000 the next year. Only 20 were accepted.
While headlines around the world have slammed these numbers, they are actually misleading Dirk Hebecker, head of the Tokyo branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Business Insider. Last year’s 20 approvals didn’t come from the 19,000-odd applications, but were people who had applied years earlier, a byproduct of the slow-moving vetting process.
“Excuse my blunt reaction on this, but it’s very stupid to put these two figures together. It’s well-known how long it takes in Japan and many other countries to actually have a result,” Hebecker said, referring to the process of seeking asylum.
But despite a lack of correlation, the raw numbers tell a hard truth: Japan is one of the world’s least-welcoming countries for refugees.
Estimates given to Business Insider indicate there should be dozens, if not hundreds – or even thousands – more refugees being granted protection by Japan every year. And the reasons this doesn’t happen are complex and multiple.
Japan, a geographically remote country, requires that refugee applications be submitted in person. But many modern-day refugees come from the Middle East and Africa, which pose large logistical and financial hurdles for asylum seekers.
For those who do make it to Japan, they must already have some sort of visa, otherwise they’ll be detained and barred from seeking refugee status. But getting one of those visas is incredibly difficult.
Take Amini’s previous residences, for example. Japan doesn’t offer a tourist visa if you’re traveling from Afghanistan. Applicants who aren’t diplomats must be invited into the country by the UN or a select number of Japanese organizations. In Pakistan, potential tourists must supply bank statements, a letter from the bank manager, evidence that they are employed, passports, and identity cards.
But asylum-seekers rarely have these documents.
“When refugees have to leave their countries, a lot of them try to throw away all of their documents, especially when it comes to their identifications or being part of a political party, things that show who they are, what they did, what their family stands for, their ideologies, and their background,” said Amini, whose family escaped with enough money for two or three weeks, some fruit, the clothes on their backs, and no documents.