Claiming asylum in Japan - Refugee Council
January 28, 2019

Claiming asylum in Japan

Our Head of Advocacy, Andy Hewett, visits to find out more and share learning

We were delighted to be invited to Japan to speak at a conference of Japanese NGOs and meet with Japanese officials and members of parliament to share learning on our respective asylum systems.

On the first day, I met with a number of Japanese NGOs to discuss the similarities and differences between our asylum systems. I was shocked to be reminded at just how low the recognition rate is in Japan and just how difficult it is to access government support.

Japan acceded to the Refugee Convention in 1981, whereupon it started to accept convention refugees (namely, those who are accepted because they fulfil the Refugee Convention criteria, which differs from those who are accepted based on, for example, family ties). Prior to this, in 1978 the government agreed to accept refugees from Indo-China.

In 2017 there were 19,629 applications for asylum, of which less than 1% were recognised as refugees (making it one of the lowest recognition rates in the world). The refugee determination process is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, whilst the welfare and support aspects fall within the remit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan has an asylum support system whereby destitute people seeking asylum are able to apply for financial assistance to help meet their accommodation and essential living needs though the numbers of people actually able to access the system are very low as most applications are refused.  In 2017, only 362 asylum seekers were able to access this support (out of a potential pool of 19,629 asylum seekers). Japanese NGOs are keen to learn more about the UK asylum system and how we engage with government officials to help improve the system.

In the evening I gave a presentation on the UK system and our approach to advocacy at an evening event attended by NGOs, academics and supportive journalists. There was huge interest in the safety net provided by the UK asylum support system, the fact that asylum support provision is enshrined in law with an appeals process (unlike Japan) and that the majority of people seeking asylum who need asylum support are able to access it.  

The second day was taken up by the main conference, organised by the Japanese Refugee Forum.  I started by giving a presentation on how we approach our advocacy work in the UK. There was a huge amount of interest in the ways in which we engage with government officials and the formal mechanisms that have been developed to facilitate this (the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum being the key one). There was an incredible amount of interest in my presentation, followed by a rich Q&A session as many Japanese NGOs were keen to learn how UK NGOs manage the relationship and engagement with government.  It was clear from the discussions that there is a need to develop the level of engagement with officials in Japan.

My presentation was followed by a discussion on the legal system in Japan and the use of detention given by a leading attorney.  

In the afternoon, we moved on to sessions discussing the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants and the opportunities these bring in terms of influencing our governments to turn their written commitments into concrete, measurable actions.

The final sessions of the day looked at Alternatives to Detention in Japan and a discussion on the similarities and differences between the UK and Japan. Japan has an alternative to detention project delivered by an NGO which sees people being released from detention into the care of the NGO which provides accommodation, support and casework contact.

The third day comprised a number of really interesting meetings with supportive members of the Japanese Parliament and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UNHCR.  There was a huge amount of interest from both officials and MPs in the UK asylum support system, particularly the use of initial/emergency accommodation and the way in which support continues for a ‘grace period’ after a decision is made.  They were also really keen to find out more about some of the formal structures that exist to enable effective stakeholder engagement between NGOs and government officials as they are keen to develop something similar.

Throughout my trip I was struck at how much interest there was from both NGOs and government officials on the impact of Brexit on the UK Immigration system, and at how well informed Japanese people were in general about the Brexit process (It really is impossible to escape the ‘B’ word).

It has been hugely inspirational to work with the NGOs in Japan, learning more about the challenges they face, sharing our learning and contributing to the discussions to help identify possible solutions.  I hope we can continue to strengthen this relationship in the future, working with NGO colleagues and civil society in other countries to improve the environment for people seeking protection.