Asylum seekers in Japan exceed 2014 level

TOKYO: The number of asylum seekers in Japan this year hit a full-year record by the end of October, government data shows, as looser visa rules and severe labour shortages attract more of those fleeing conflict and poverty.

Japan runs the tightest refugee recognition system among industrialised economies, accepting only 11 refugees last year.

That prompted calls for Japan, which has offered nearly $2 billion to nations hit by a flood of refugees from Syria, to take more asylum seekers from the Middle East.

A Justice Ministry document seen by Reuters showed 6,160 people filed asylum claims by October 31, exceeding last year's record of 5,000, to reach a fifth consecutive annual high.

Nobuhiro Tsuru, an official at the ministry's refugee recognition department, would not comment on the data because it had not been officially published, but confirmed that "around 6,100" had applied.

More than half of Japan's asylum seekers in 2014 hailed from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Tsuru would not say which countries contributed the most asylum seekers this year, saying only that they were "roughly the same" as last year.

Legal changes in 2010 that gave asylum seekers access to work permits have boosted applications, he said.

Many find work in Japan's manufacturing and construction industries, suffering from labour shortages as the population ages. A Reuters investigation in July showed many work in Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd auto brand Subaru's supply chain.

Refugee advocates and policy experts say the increasing numbers claiming asylum are part of a global trend of increased flows of refugees and migrants, coupled with relaxed rules on entry to Japan.

"The hurdles to reach Japan have become lowered for many, including asylum seekers," said Eri Ishikawa of the Japan Association for Refugees, citing eased restrictions on tourist visas introduced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Experts blame last year's low intake of refugees on a lack of planning for their protection and resettlement, as well as a dysfunctional system for processing claims.

Nearly 18 million foreign tourists visited Japan by the end of November this year, up almost 50 percent from the same period a year earlier, government data published on Tuesday shows.

The spike in asylum seekers since 2010 has led Japan to tighten its refugee recognition system, in a bid to cut what it calls "abusive" applications.

Changes announced in September scrap the automatic grant of work permits to asylum seekers, and allow some to be barred from making multiple reapplications.