An increasing number of Ukrainians have been leaving their country since Russia’s invasion. While European nations are expected to accept many “refugees,” Japan is accepting some under the status of “evacuees,” which has no legal definition. The government is granting them a one-year work permit as a special case. This ambiguity is caused by the government’s cautious refugee policy.
As of March 27, Japan said it has accepted a total of 288 Ukrainians. Japan is located far away from Ukraine and there are cultural and language barriers. Nonetheless, the U.S., which is also located far from Ukraine, has announced it will accept 100,000 Ukrainians.
In the narrow sense, the word “refugee” is based on the Refugee Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1951. It defines a refugee as someone who has fled to another country owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
In the narrow sense, most people who flee their country owing to conflicts, including those who evacuated from Ukraine, are not defined as refugees under the UN convention.
To protect these people, European nations grant residential status in a form similar to granting refugee status based on the idea of “supplementary protection.”
Japan is a signatory to the UN convention and stipulates refugees in the immigration control act. Those who seek refugee status need to submit documentation proving that there is fear of being persecuted. The Immigration Services Agency investigates the reason for the application and makes a judgment.
Japan grants few people refugee status, and there are also few cases of supplementary protection. In 2020, only 47 people out of about 4,000 applicants were granted refugee status.
Support groups point out that “Japan’s standards for approving the fear of persecution are too strict” and that “there are no clear criteria for determining whether to grant or reject refugee status. They also say that there are cases where those who apply for refugee status were deported to their home countries after their applications were turned down.
The Immigration Services Agency analyzes applications and explains that many of them are made for economic reasons and that these are attempts to abuse the refugee grant system, However, it is difficult to comprehend the actual situation.
“Evacuees” from Ukraine represent a cohort that is not defined in the immigration control act. The Japanese government describes them as “those who evacuated from their countries due to a conflict” so that they are not defined as refugees in the narrow sense. Therefore, granting refugee status would require a different decision to be made.
Evacuees are treated differently from refugees. They enter Japan on 90-day short-term visas. The visas can be renewed as a special case and the evacuees are allowed to work for up to one year. On the other hand, refugees receive a travel document in place of a passport and are granted a 5-year residence status. They are also eligible for social benefits, such as national pensions and childcare allowances.
With regards to the term “evacuee,” Rikkyo University Graduate School Professor Osa Yukie points out that “this mirrors the Japanese stance of only accepting those who meet the definition of the refugee convention” and calls for “revision to the law to accept refugees [who come to Japan] due to conflicts.” (Abridged)