In 2016, 10,901 people applied for refugee status in Japan.

I may understand if these refugees come from the neighboring countries such as Philippines or Mongolia, but some people come from countries like Indonesia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, and even Ukraine or Afghanistan.

But why do these people come to Japan, instead of geographically closer countries like Singapore or even Hong Kong or Australia or New Zealand? Japan is quite expensive country to live in and there is a steep language barrier and people are generally unwelcoming toward immigrants, especially refugees, and education and welfare system is not good, either. And the worst of all is Japan's incredibly low approval rate, which in 2016 was mere 1 to 2%. Europe is much better in all of this regards.

If these refugees just strive for a place to live in as human being, developing neighboring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia would certainly suffice.

So why do refugees come to Japan by possibly spending so much money?

With respect to a comment by @Relaxed, here is a brief breakdown of the applicants and results by country, in 2016 (source: Ministry of Justice website):


  • Indonesia: 1,829
  • Nepal: 1,451
  • Philippines: 1,412
  • Turkey: 1,143
  • Vietnam: 1,072
  • Sri Lanka: 938
  • Myanmar: 650
  • India: 470
  • Cambodia: 318
  • Pakistan: 289

People who got refugee status (28 in total):

  • Afghanistan: 7
  • Ethiopia: 4
  • Eritrea: 3
  • Bangladesh: 2

People who didn't get refugee status but were allowed to stay due to humanity reason (97 in total):

  • Ukraine: 15
  • Iraq, Turkey: 10
  • Pakistan: 9
  • Sri Lanka: 8
  • Myanmar: 6
  • Philippines: 5
  • Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh: 4
  • 1
    Did you happen to see a breakdown of the number of applications and success rates by country of origin?
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 11:32
  • 2
    @JonathanReez That's just a comfortable story people in Europe tell themselves not to face the facts. If you are forced to leave your home by oppression, you will of course try to find a country where you have a chance of living a decent life and enjoying more freedom. Even if you end up being stuckin a refugee camp in a neighbouring country, trying to go elsewhere through legal or illegal channels does not make you any less of a refugee (under both international law and common sense definitions).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 14:45
  • 2
    @JonathanReez No, the definition is still the same and I never suggested otherwise. Let's say I am forced to flee Syria, do I cease to be a refugee in your eyes if I manage to fly to France instead of going to Turkey? The recent wave of refugees going to Europe is directly related to a series of civil wars (Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan). For the most part, these people do not come from “every poor country”, they are really fleeing danger. It's just a simple fact, quite apart from all the debates about the proper policy response and the many other connected issues.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 15:02
  • 1
    Some applicants for refugee status are allowed to work in Japan while their applications are evaluated. In addition, others aren't allowed to work, but aren't locked up, and some of them work illegally. I haven't fully sourced this yet which is why it's a comment, but check out links in the answer to skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/32028/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 21:03
  • 1
    @AndrewGrimm Interesting links, I used it to expand on my answer, thanks!
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 9:38

1 Answer 1


There are many refugees stuck in camps inside their own country or somewhere close but if you can escape that fate, developing countries have never been very attractive. Going there really only makes sense from the perspective of the developed countries who would like to get rid of the problem (“If you are really fearing for your life, why isn't Turkey good enough?”)

But if you are forced to leave your country and spend a lot of money and effort to find a passage and start from scratch somewhere else, you might as well go to a place where you have a better chance to live a better life, get a job, etc. Some places in Europe do indeed seem somewhat better but in Asia, that leaves places like Singapore and Hong Kong (also horribly expensive), Australia (very hard to get to with one of the harshest policy in this respect among rich democratic countries) and New Zealand (also hard to get to and very far out of the way). So Japan (or Korea) do not seem much worse.

In practice, refugees often rely on their network and information they gather along the way to choose a destination. For example, many of those who are trying to cross to the UK in Calais did not even set out to go there initially. And if you have a distant relative or someone from your town/village that can host you for some time or set you up with a job, you will go there. Getting a visa or reading online about some destination are also things that might decide someone to go to one country rather than another.

An asylum application can also be a way to fight removal and continue to live in a country. Say you come as a student or on a short-stay visa, you have been living in the country for some years, possibly illegally, and somehow got caught or threatened with detention. Usually, you can still try your luck in the asylum system, possibly lie about your citizenship or invent a far-fetched story (say being homosexual or a political opponent) in a desperate attempt to win some time. In most cases, your application will eventually be denied but it will show up in the statistics.

The low rate of success and the countries of origin seem to suggest something like that is also going on and Andrew Grimm provided a couple of press articles confirming this. Apparently Japan allows asylum seekers to work while they wait on a decision, which is far from being the case everywhere and would make an asylum application there all the more attractive, whether you are a genuine refugee or just trying to find a legal status allowing you to work in a rich country.

Finally, 10000 is actually quite small. A country like France (half the size of Japan) has been processing 50-60000 applications a year for decades. Applications in the EU as a whole spiked to over a million last year. The UNHCR estimates that there are 2.5M Afghan refugees and 5.5M Syrian refugees in the world. Indonesia and the Philippines are very large countries (260M and 100M people). No matter how you look at it, a few thousand people just isn't many so it seems that your guess that Japan isn't very attractive is right and the figures you found do not really contradict it.

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