Are Ukrainians who flee refugees or evacuees? In Japan, it’s complicated.

Are Ukrainians who flee their war-torn country refugees or evacuees?

Many governments, media outlets and organizations across the globe describe Ukrainians escaping Russia’s invasion as refugees, but the Japanese government is using the term hinanmin, which more closely translates to “people who have been evacuated.”

That’s because, from the government’s perspective, Ukrainians don’t fit the definition outlined in the Refugee Convention.

Tokyo grants refugee status to those who meet each of the criteria of the treaty, which describes refugees as people who are:

  • Unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
  • Outside the country of their nationality
  • Unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of their country

This definition, which critics say is too narrow in scope, limits the number of people granted refugee status in Japan, triggering criticism from the international community that the country is not accepting enough refugees. In 2020, Tokyo only granted refugee status to 47 people out of 3,936 applicants, according to the Justice Ministry. It also granted residential status out of “humanitarian considerations” to 44 others who don’t fit the above criteria.

Immigration Services Agency officials have said in recent parliamentary sessions that Ukrainians fleeing to Japan may not be granted refugee status based on that definition. So what is Japan doing to accept Ukrainians fleeing war?

On March 2, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will accept Ukrainians fleeing the Eastern European nation, starting with those who have friends or family in Japan.

Ukraine refugees wait for transportation in Medyka on Wednesday after crossing the border into Poland. | AFP-JIJI
Ukraine refugees wait for transportation in Medyka on Wednesday after crossing the border into Poland. | AFP-JIJI

In line with this, the Foreign Ministry is instructing Japanese embassies and consulates overseas to issue short-term, 90-day visas to Ukrainians who have fled the war.

Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa said Tuesday that eight Ukrainians had arrived in Japan from March 2 through Tuesday.

After arrival, their visas can be switched to a longer-term residential status, with a period of stay ranging from three months to five years. That status makes holders eligible to work in Japan, said Takuji Nishiyama, deputy commissioner with the Immigration Services Agency, during a parliamentary session Tuesday.

Once granted a residential status for three months or longer, these people will be eligible for a residence card, which in turn will allow them to be registered in the municipalities where they reside.

“Getting a residence card and being registered in municipalities are key, allowing them to receive all kinds of public benefits, from the nation’s health care program to monthly benefits for children and other social welfare programs,” said Ayako Niijima, an official at the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), a nonprofit organization in Tokyo.

If they wish to apply for refugee status, the government will screen them on a case-by-case basis. Refugee status basically gives people the same protections and benefits as Japanese citizenship. Unlike those with a mid- to long-term residential status, those with refugee status can receive a “refugee travel document” similar to a passport that allows them to travel to other countries and return to Japan. This is beneficial for refugees whose passports have expired and cannot be renewed.

For those fleeing from Ukraine, the possibility of being deported in the future would be a major concern. But according to the Immigration Services Agency, they won’t be deported as long as they have a valid residential status.

Lawmakers have proposed that Japan create a separate system for Ukrainians — outside of the current refugee status — similar to one established in the late 1970s, under which Japan accepted refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Between 1978 and 2005, Japan accepted about 11,000 refugees from the three countries, according to the Foreign Ministry.

There is also a framework that allows the government to accept up to 60 people each year that flee to a third country and resettle in Japan. Such individuals are eligible to take free Japanese language classes and can receive help finding jobs, along with various other forms of support from the government. At present, however, Japan only accepts people from Asian countries under the program, such as Rohingya who fled Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia.

“Even if (the Russian invasion of Ukraine) is resolved, it is unlikely that they will be able to return to their countries anytime soon,” said JAR’s Niijima. “It is essential that (the government) offers comprehensive support to allow them to settle in Japan.”

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