U.N. urges Japan to resettle more refugees after taking just three in first half

TOKYO (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency has urged Japan to resettle more asylum seekers, its chief said on Monday, pressuring the country to help solve a global crisis after giving refugee status to just three people in the first half of the year.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi attends a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan, November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Japan is one of the developed world’s least welcoming countries for asylum seekers. It accepted 28 in 2016, despite applications from a record 10,091 people.

It has since 2008 given home to limited numbers of refugees through a so-called third-country resettlement scheme, resettling a total of 152 people - mostly ethnic Karen people from Myanmar living in Thai and Malaysian camps.

“That program is very small, about 20-30 refugees a year,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told a news conference in Tokyo. “I have asked the government to consider whether it could be expanded.”

Japan’s reluctance to accept refugees mirrors a wider caution towards immigration in a nation where many pride themselves on cultural and ethnic homogeneity.

Its record at home has drawn sharp criticism from international human rights groups, and has been at odds with its traditional status as a major international donor on refugees.

But Japan’s donations to the UNHCR have slipped: in the year to Oct. 2, it was the fourth-largest donor, giving $152 million, compared to the second-largest four years ago.

“Contributions from the government to the UNHCR have been declining a little bit every year since 2013,” Grandi said. “What I asked the government to consider is that the needs of refugees and displaced people are increasing.”

More than 2 million people fleeing wars or persecution have joined the ranks of the world’s refugees this year. At the end of last year, the latest figure available, 17.2 million refugees fell under the UNHCR’s mandate.

Japan says that many people claim asylum in Japan to find work, encouraged by access to renewable work permits for people applying for refugee status.

It officially rejects unskilled migrant workers, even as a fast-shrinking and ageing population blunts the potency of government efforts to rouse the economy from over two decades of sluggish growth and deflation.

The Justice Ministry, which oversees refugee recognition, is weighing steps including restrictions on work permits for asylum seekers to curb what it deems “abusive” applications.

Editing by Nick Macfie