Myanmar soccer player’s asylum bid highlights Japan’s ‘strict’ refugee system


Japan’s “strict” refugee screening system is drawing renewed attention after a member of the Myanmar national soccer team visiting Japan refused to go home days before World Refugee Day on Sunday.

Japan grants refugee status to only a fraction of applicants, while the people of Myanmar seeking the status see the urgent need for protection following a military coup in their home country in February.

A handbook of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that refugee applicants should be given the benefit of the doubt. But the Japanese rules are “too strict,” an expert says.

Pyae Lyan Aung, a substitute goalkeeper of the Myanmar team, which was visiting Japan for FIFA World Cup qualifier matches, refused to board his flight home Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters in Osaka Prefecture on Sunday, he said he will apply for refugee status Tuesday.

According to the UNHCR and other sources, there were 82.4 million refugees around the world at the end of last year.

Refugee applications filed with Japan numbered more than 10,000 every year from 2016, except in 2020, when the world was hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan granted refugee status for only 0.4% of all applications processed in 2020, according to UNHCR data.

In line with the principle of giving the benefit of the doubt in the UNHCR handbook, many countries accept accounts of refugee applicants as credible even if they cannot submit enough evidence that they would be persecuted if they return home.

“In some countries including the United States, there were cases in which refugee status was granted once applicants said they were ethnic minority members who suffered oppression in their home countries,” an informed source said.

The Immigration Services Agency consults the UNHCR handbook when examining refugee applications, according to an agency official.

But Japan puts “too much burden” on applicants, said Chuo University professor Yasuzo Kitamura, an international human rights law specialist.

“In Japan, applicants themselves need to objectively prove that their lives would be in danger or they would be persecuted with nearly 100% certainty if they return home,” said Kitamura, himself involved in the screening process.

Applicants are also required to translate evidential documents into Japanese before submitting them, Kitamura also said.

“In the first-round examinations, which are interviews by refugee inquirers, applicants cannot be accompanied by lawyers,” he said.

Such interviews sometimes end in just a few minutes, he said, adding that it is necessary to allow lawyers to support refugee applicants.

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