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Court ruling could mean more refugee protection in Japan

13 February 20240 comments

A recent court ruling could be a sign of a softening of Japan’s traditionally conservative and restrictive protocols on recognising refugees.

The Nagoya High Court last month ordered the Japanese government to grant refugee status to an ethnic Rohingya asylum seeker from Myanmar.

A lower court had previously ruled that 44-year-old Khin Maung Soe was a Rohingya, but that his ethnicity was an insufficient basis for considering him a refugee.

The most recent ruling found that because the Myanmar military had “committed ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya” since the February 2021 military coup, there “exists objective fact to feel fear of persecution”.

The unprecedented ruling is set to upend Japan’s refugee determination system which traditionally puts more weight on asylum seekers’ individual circumstances than their status as a member of a persecuted ethnicity or group.

The Japanese government had rejected Khin Maung Soe’s refugee application four times before he brought the case in 2020.

In 2017, the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, which included mass killings, and drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee the country, most going to Bangladesh.

Rohingya remaining in Myanmar face systematic abuses. The military regime has been accused of crimes against humanity, including apartheid, persecution, and deprivation of liberty.

Since the 2021 military coup, restrictions have increased and conditions have deteriorated.

Japan has highly restrictive policies on asylum requests. In 2022, only 202 people out of 3,772 applicants were given refugee status, and 1,202 people had to apply for refugee status more than once, including 83 from Myanmar.

The case also points to the heightened risk asylum seekers face after Japan’s Diet passed a bill last year to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

The amendment allows the government to deport asylum seekers who apply for refugee status more than twice. The law will go into effect by June.

The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Japanese Government to do more to protect refugees.

“The Japanese government should ensure refugees like Khin Maung Soe aren’t forced returned to harm’s way,” HRW said.

“Japan should respect the international treaties it has ratified, notably the Refugee Convention, by upholding the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life.

“The government should also establish independent bodies to oversee refugee applications and appeals as recommended by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations,” the agency said.