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Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang. Photo: Reuters

Record numbers of Chinese granted refugee status in Japan

  • New high of 11 comes despite travel restrictions, as those fleeing China cite alleged intolerance of religious and political beliefs and Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang
  • Support groups say Hong Kong residents are expected to be among those seeking asylum in near future
Nearly one-quarter of the foreign nationals granted refugee status by Japan in 2020 were Chinese, a record high despite the dramatic decline in people arriving from China on tourist visas last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Support groups for refugees in Japan said some of those fleeing China cited alleged intolerance of religious and political beliefs, while some were from Xinjiang, the far-western region of the country where Beijing has been accused of detaining up to 1 million Uygur Muslims in internment camps.
Countries including the United States have accused China of genocide, arguing that the camps are part of a systematic attempt to destroy the ethnic group, but Beijing claims the centres are “re-education” facilities offering vocational training that are aimed at preventing religious extremism and terrorism.


UK parliament declares Uygurs suffering ‘genocide’ in China’s Xinjiang

UK parliament declares Uygurs suffering ‘genocide’ in China’s Xinjiang
The support groups said they expected to see applications for refugee status from residents of Hong Kong in the near future as a result of Beijing’s tightening controls in the city.
Earlier this year the Japanese government told China it could not “tolerate mass arrests” in Hong Kong, in a reference to Beijing’s implementation of a national security law in the city. Opponents of the law, which creates four offences – secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – say it is so widely defined that it can be used to stifle civil liberties. However, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have defended it as necessary to bring back stability to the city, which before the law’s implementation had been rocked by months of anti-government street protests.

Japan tells China it ‘can’t tolerate mass arrests’ under HK’s national security law

A total of 47 foreigners were recognised as refugees and permitted to remain in Japan in 2020, of whom 11 were Chinese, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan. However, none of the 11 are from Hong Kong.

Tokyo’s record on refugees has long been a source of international criticism, with the number of people allowed to settle in Japan contrasting poorly with many Western countries. In 2019, Japan accepted 44 refugees, compared to 53,973 refugees accepted by Germany, 44,614 given the right to settle in the United States and more than 30,000 in France. Yet Japan does appear to now recognise that more Chinese should be considered refugees.

In 2018, 308 Chinese applied to be recognised as refugees in Japan, with just four applications approved. In 2019, of the 134 applications, zero cases from Chinese nationals were approved.

In 2020, 77 applications filed by Chinese were rejected but 11 people were successful.

A refugee from Myanmar works in a nail salon in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

“Typically, these people come to Japan on tourist visas and then seek refugee status, but the number of Chinese coming to Japan on holiday last year dropped sharply because of the coronavirus,” said Daisuke Sugimoto, secretary general of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees.

“They tell us that the situation in China has worsened for them, particularly when it comes to restrictions on religious activities.”


Members of the Falun Gong sect, along with Christian groups, were among those that have sought refugee status, support groups said.

Religion is the main reason that people are leaving China and come into contact with our group,” said Maho Hadano, a coordinator for the Door To Asylum Nagoya support group. “We are also seeing some Uygur people and we very much hope that the government will recognise more as refugees and allow them to stay here.”


Hong Kong national security law has ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms, says UN human rights chief

Hong Kong national security law has ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms, says UN human rights chief

Hadano said that “hundreds” of foreigners were applying each year for refugee status but the vast majority were rejected. They were, however, permitted to reapply if their situation changed.


A spokesman for the Immigration Services Agency declined to comment on the increase in Chinese nationals being granted permission to remain in Japan as refugees or their reasons for leaving China.

Sugimoto said in the 30 years to 2015 just two Chinese were recognised as refugees by the Japanese authorities, so the uptick in recent years was a significant improvement.

“I believe the government here is changing its attitude towards Chinese seeking refugee status and altering their policies towards applicants,” he said.


“And we believe that they are expecting more applications in the future, including from Hong Kong, as we know that the agency has produced information in Chinese that is specifically designed for people arriving in Japan from Hong Kong.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese granted refugee status by Japan hits high