Japan continued to see a rise in applicants seeking refugee status in 2017 following a reform that granted work permits to those involved in prolonged screening, government data showed Tuesday.
The number of applicants stood at 19,628, up 8,727 from 2016 and exceeding 10,000 for the second straight year, the Justice Ministry said in a preliminary report. Only 20 were recognized as refugees, down from 28, in a result that could fuel criticism that Japan's refugee policy is closed.
Applications have sharply increased since the 2010 reform allowed asylum seekers to work in Japan once their applications have been under consideration for longer than six months. The number of asylum seekers surpassed 10,000 in 2016 for the first time since the government began recording in 1982.
The ministry, however, introduced a stricter screening process earlier this year, saying the work permit system is "misused" by people who think they can work in Japan as long as they apply for refugee status.
By nationality, the largest group of asylum seekers was from the Philippines, which totaled 4,895 people in 2017 compared with 1,412 a year before. People from Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia followed.
Those who were granted asylum included five people from Egypt, another five from Syria and two from Afghanistan. On humanitarian considerations, 45 people were also allowed to stay in Japan, including four from Syria, three from Myanmar and two from Iraq.
From war-torn Syria, a total of 81 people sought refugee status between 2011 an 2017. Of the 76 people for which the screening process ended, 70 were accepted as refugees or allowed to remain in Japan due to humanitarian reasons, while six remainders withdrew their applications.
The ministry said some applications had been filed for reasons not recognized as persecution under the U.N. convention governing refugees, including fleeing from debts.
Previously, those who file for refugee status three times without legitimate grounds were liable to be detained at immigration centers for deportation.
But under the stricter system introduced in mid-January, the government takes similar measures even for first-time applicants who do not meet criteria stipulated in the refugee convention.
The ministry also ended offering the blanket work permit to applicants waiting for more than six months, instead only permitting those deemed to have a high chance of being recognized as refugees following an initial examination that takes up to two months after an application is filed.