Syrian Asylum Seekers Face Difficulties in Japan

May 12, 2015

Sarah Alsaden
Third-year Student at the University of Michigan Law School.

UNHCR predicts that the number of individuals that will be affected by the conflict in Syria will continue to rise in 2015. Currently there are approximately 3,029,465 Syrian refugees that are displaced and seeking protection throughout the world. Recently, four Syrian asylum seekers have decided to sue the government of Japan for its failure to recognize their claims for refugee status. While Japan is not the only country that experiences low refugee status recognition rates, this litigation move comes amid reports published by the Ministry of Justice, which states that Japan recognized only six asylum seekers in 2013 and only 11 in 2014, despite a clear upward trend in the number of asylum applications.

For individuals who are recognized as refugees, Japan provides access to education, language training, work permits, work training programs, social security and housing. Low recognition rates for asylum seekers, however, mean that very few individuals will be able to access these entitlements. Despite ongoing conflict in Syria, and a flood of Syrian refugees seeking asylum all over the world, very few Syrian asylum seekers have been recognized as refugees in Japan. In fact, no Syrian refugees had been recognized until as recently as March 2015, when three Syrian refugees were the first to be recognized. Most Syrian asylum seekers are denied refugee status and granted a form of temporary protection, “humanitarian status,” which is granted on a discretionary basis and through a somewhat opaque process. Humanitarian status, however, is problematic because despite offering increased protections for asylum seekers, it does not guarantee the full enjoyment of their rights.[1] Humanitarian status holders do not have family reunification rights and have fewer opportunities for education and language training, and housing.  Furthermore, non-refoulement is not guaranteed for those with humanitarian status, which significantly undermines their sense of security.[2]

What is most striking is that Syrian refugees, who have been denied refugee status at a high rate in Japan, are recognized at very high rates in Europe. In fact, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, in the first half of 2013, Syrian asylum seekers in Europe had an 88% recognition rate. This is especially significant when compared to Europe’s recognition rate of 35.5% for all nationalities.

The Syrian refugee crisis remains one of today’s most pressing problems, with over 3.8 million Syrian refugees, most of whom are taken in by neighboring countries. The vast majority of refugees (1.6 million) are currently in Turkey, which is problematic because it is one of the few signatories to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol that retains the geographical limitation on the origin of refugees from the 1951 Convention. By retaining the geographical limitation on the origin of refugees from the 1951 Convention, Turkey has obligations to only refugees coming from Europe, not other parts of the world. Moreover, over 1.1 million Syrian refugees reside in Lebanon, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention, and thus does not have an international obligation to respect the almost universally recognized rights of refugees.[3]

Countries like Japan, who have clear international obligations, should take action to ensure that their national policies are in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention. By guaranteeing fair refugee status determination procedures and fair means of adjudicating unfavorable decisions, Japan can ensure that refugees are granted protection and have access to basic rights and services. Thus, an investigation into the root causes of why there are such low refugee recognition rates will be important for verifying that Japan’s asylum procedures are fair and in compliance with its international obligations.


[1] (page 14-15) (showing gradation of services offered to asylum seekers, humanitarian assistance and finally refugees)

[2]; see also (page 14-15)

[3]; see also

Suggested Citation: Sarah Alsaden, Syrian Asylum Seekers Face Difficulties in Japan, RefLaw (May 12, 2015),


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