My name is Masayo Boston, and I will try to fill attorney Mr. Atsushi Miyake’s shoes by undertaking the writing of this column from this month. I am a certified legal professional specializing in administrative procedures (gyoseishoshi 行政書士) here in Fukuoka. My focus is on helping foreigners with visa applications, naturalization procedures, and establishing companies in Japan. This month’s topic concerns those from Ukraine seeking refuge in Japan.
On March 2, 2022, the Japanese Prime Minister first announced that Japan would be accepting Ukrainians evacuating from the war in Ukraine. Initial Japanese press announcements referred to people from Ukraine as ‘refugees’ (nanmin難民). Soon after, however, the Japanese press altered their terminology and began referring to those evacuating from Ukraine as ‘evacuees’ (hinanmin 避難民).
On March 15, the Ministry of Justice announced the following procedures for Ukrainians who have evacuated from the war to enter Japan. Ukrainian evacuees first have to enter Japan on a short-stay (短期滞在) visa. This short-stay visa must be obtained at a Japanese embassy or consulate before leaving for Japan. Once in Japan, the Ukrainian evacuees can apply for a change from short-stay status to “designated activities” (特定活動 ) residence status.
To apply for “designated activities” residence status, Ukrainian evacuees must submit their Ukrainian passport (or a passport copy), a completed application form, and a written statement explaining the reason for their application. Once granted, Ukrainian evacuees with ‘designated activities’ status can stay in Japan for one year and are allowed to work full-time with no restrictions on job type. If there is a need for an extension, their stay can be extended.
Of course, it is also possible to come to Japan and try to apply for refugee status. Any foreign person can make such an application. Usually, applicants are given “designated activities” status while awaiting the result of the application for refugee status.
What happens when refugee status is recognized? Once recognized as a refugee, “long-term residence” status (定住者) will be granted in most cases. With their refugee status recognized, there is also the possibility that the requirements for obtaining a permanent residence permit (永住許可) might be eased at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. (Immigration Services of Japan website)
However, in Japan, recognition of refugee status is very uncommon; for example, in 2020, the success rate of refugee status applications in Japan was 1.2% (47 out of 3,936 applicants.) It is important to understand the criteria used for deciding whether an applicant is recognized as a refugee and how the criteria could perhaps be applied to those who have evacuated from Ukraine.
The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and Protocol on the Status of Refugees (1967) provides a definition of a refugee. Under Article 1 of the Refugee Convention and Article 1 of the Protocol, a refugee is defined as:
“a person who is outside of his/her own country of nationality and unable or unwilling to receive the protection of his/her own country of nationality for having a well-founded fear of being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or for their political opinions.”
Japan ratified the UN Refugee Convention in October 1981, and Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (出入国管理及び難民認定法) went into effect in January 1982. The Japanese refugee recognition system was established to implement the various regulations of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Protocol on the Status of Refugees.
While the UN’s definition of a refugee has been adopted for the refugee recognition system in Japan, the words “unable or unwilling to receive the protection of his/her own country of nationality” can be interpreted as meaning that only people being persecuted by their own home country should be formally recognized as ‘refugees .’This has been the interpretation traditionally used in Japan. Can such an interpretation allow evacuees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be recognized as refugees?
The majority seeking refuge outside of Ukraine are women and children. These women and children are not seeking refuge from persecution by their government but rather the Russian invasion. Can these women and children not be formally recognized as refugees? In contrast, could a man leave Ukraine to avoid his country’s military draft based on his conscience as a pacifist be officially recognized as a refugee? An overly narrow interpretation of the UN definition of a refugee appears to undermine the original purpose of the UN conventions on refugee status. It needs to be asked what the difference is between an evacuee (hinanmin 避難民) and a ‘refugee’(nanmin難民) and whether the distinction is important.
Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure that the information on this article is accurate at the time of posting, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ. If you do require advice or wish to find out more about the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.