The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the international agency which sets the main standards concerning refugee related problems, such as the refugee status determination procedures, ensuring that their rights are respected.
However, the UNHCR has an advisory role, each country being responsible for establishing rules regarding asylum and granting refugee status to vulnerable people, in accordance with the guidelines of the UNHCR. In the next part of this section, we will analyse the particularities of the refugee status determination procedures in a few law systems around the world, as well as emphasise the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.
Even though Japan has one of the best refugee assistance programmes, the country’s policy towards asylum seekers has been quite strict. One of the reasons the authorities deny a large part of the applications is the fact that the funds assigned to resettling refugees are lower compared to the ones of other states.
Any person who seeks asylum has to fill in an application (shinsei) and address it to the Japanese Government through any immigration office of the Ministry of Justice. The applicant is called for one interview (at least) with an immigration officer, being required to bring identification documents (such as identity cards, passports, documents attesting party membership, school certificates) and any other evidence to support the claim. Using false information to obtain refugee status is punished by fine and/or penal servitude or imprisonment.
Processing the asylum application may take up to several months, but in exceptional cases it can take a few years. During this time, the person who seeks asylum may obtain permission for provisional stay, which prevents him/her from being detained. The applicant can appeal the Immigration office’s rejection decision, at first at the immigration office and then, if the appeal is denied, through a court review. However, being denied the refugee status does not mean the person will necessarily be subject to detention or deportation. In some situations, the Japanese Government may offer the Special Permission to Stay on Humanitarian Grounds (Zairyu Tokubetsu Kyoka).
Asylum seekers who are eligible to receive assistance based on criteria established by the Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ) receive monthly allocations and may have medical expenses covered. They can also be offered legal counseling services by the Japanese Legal Aid Association (with free counseling each Thursday). Furthermore, there are NGOs which offer social and legal counseling, job placement support, and limited financial assistance.
The people recognised as refugees receive long-term resident status in Japan, which is renewable after one or three years. Refugees can benefit from the National Health Insurance, accommodation in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, and different integration programmes (including language courses, job placement support, and financial assistance).
THE UNITED KINGDOM
Contrary to expectations, the British government has been somewhat conservative concerning the United Kingdom’s asylum policy. UK’s perspective is regarded by many EU leaders, analysts, and even British legal professionals as inappropriate. However, the British authorities have promised to take in a few tens of thousands of refugees in the following five years.
The asylum seekers must register the application upon arrival in the United Kingdom, at the Border Office, or, for those who are already in the UK, soon after becoming eligible under UNHCR criteria. After this step, the applicant will be screened, a procedure which intends to identify the person making the application. During the screening, the asylum seeker will be photographed, have his/her fingerprints taken, and meet an immigration officer. Documents attesting identity, such as identity certificates, birth or marriage certificates, passports, travel documents, police registration certificates, and other written evidence to support the application should be brought at the interview. The applicant can ask for an interpreter if he/she does not speak English.
Most of the time, after the screening, the asylum seeker receives an application card or a standard acknowledgement letter, but in some situations he/she might be detained at an immigration removal centre. However, children, elderly, families with children, pregnant women, victims of trafficking, or people suffering of mental or physical illnesses cannot be subject to detention.
Soon after the screening, the applicant will be interviewed by a caseworker, during which the asylum seeker should provide information regarding the asylum claim, answer the questions of the caseworker, and bring any evidence which can sustain the claims. The asylum seeker can ask for a legal representative and support for paying the legal advice.
Usually, the authorities usually make a decision in six months. If they give permission to stay, the refugee has the right to settle in the United Kingdom for five years. After five years, the refugee can apply to settle in the UK. If de application is denied, the applicant might be asked to leave the country or forcefully removed from the United Kingdom. However, the asylum seeker may appeal against the caseworker’s decision.
The UK offers housing and financial support to asylum seekers in need. This includes accommodation and breakfast, a limited amount of money, sometimes free healthcare (which covers expenses for dental care, prescriptions for medicine, eyesight tests and glasses). Children (aged five to seventeen) must attend state schools and may also get free meals at their school. Pregnant women and mothers who have children under the age of three are given extra payments.
Up until recently, Sweden’s policy concerning refugees had been generous, with both the authorities and the population supporting the resettlement programmes of asylum seekers. However, the government seemed to change its view, after it failed to reach an agreement with the Danish authorities regarding the management of the tense situation created at the border between Sweden and Denmark. As the Swedish authorities voiced their concern over reaching the maximum capacity for accepting refugees, some asylum seekers were denied entry into the country from the Danish territory. Later, Denmark blamed Sweden for its mild policies and urged the Swedish side to take in the asylum seekers who were trapped at the border.
According to the Swedish Migration Agency, in the week leading up to November 4, 2015, around 9,200 applications for asylum were registered in Sweden, the majority of them being from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also from Eritrea and Somalia.
People who seek asylum in Sweden are required to submit an application at a Migration Agency application unit or at the border police (for the ones who are entering Sweden). However, Sweden offers two levels of protection for the ones who are not eligible for the refugee status. The first one refers to the subsidiary protection based on European Union regulation, for the ones who might be at risk of suffering injuries due to armed conflicts, who might be subjected to torture, physical punishment, or other inhumane or degrading treatment, or sentenced to death if they stay in or return to their home country. The other type of protection is the one offered in accordance with Swedish laws.
In all these situations the person is granted a residence permit, usually for an unlimited period of time. In order to respect the best interest of the child, Swedish authorities have a series of special rules that are applied when the person claiming the refugee status is a child. In such cases, the child has the right to speak and be heard, and his/her application may be assessed separately from the ones of his parents, as all of them might have different reasons for claiming asylum. Furthermore, children have the right to be accompanied by a parent, a public counsel or a trustee at the hearings concerning asylum.
Asylum seekers are offered emergency health care, with maternity care being offered to pregnant women. The children who are waiting for their refugee status determination have the same rights concerning health care as Swedish children.
Sweden does not offer accommodation for asylum seekers. The authorities might give accommodation to families with children under the age of eighteen if there are enough places in accommodation centers. In case of emergency, Swedish municipalities get involved in accommodating asylum seekers in some evacuation shelters, such as sports halls or schools. Furthermore, private individuals are encouraged to help asylum seekers with shelter, by registering at the Migration Agency.
Taking in refugees has been regarded by the German authorities as a historical and humanitarian obligation. Germany’s recent, more permissive approach to asylum, particularly to granting asylum to Syrians affected by war, has been quite controversial. While most of the EU leaders and German politicians supported this view, many other opposed to it over security concerns.
In 2015, Germany has received more than 300,000 applications for protection status, out of which more than 80,000 people were granted refugee status. The top three countries which have citizens who have sought refuge in Germany are Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea. According to the German Asylum Procedure Act, people seeking protection are transferred to a reception centre, where they can apply for asylum. Their application is sent to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which has a branch that will examine it and take a decision. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees assigns case workers who question each person seeking asylum about the reasons they need protection and about their travel route. While their application is analysed, asylum seekers are given the preliminary right to stay in Germany.
The protection seekers who are granted refugee status receive a temporary residence permit and have the same rights as German citizens regarding social welfare, social insurance, child benefits, and integration support.
Canada has had one of the most positive attitudes concerning asylum seekers thus far. Probably, this has roots deep in the history of the country, which had been built on immigration.
There are two ways a person can seek protection in Canada. The first one is at the arrival in any airport, seaport or land border, where an officer will asses the claim and decide whether to report it or not to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (which is an administrative tribunal that makes decisions on immigration and refugee matters). However, the applications of asylum seekers arriving via the Canada-United States of America border will be rejected, unless the asylum seekers have their family in Canada. This rule has been introduced after Canada and the United States signed an agreement which obliges people seeking protection to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in.
The second way of claiming refugee status is by filling all of the forms in the application package, where the asylum seeker should mention any useful identification and background information, also stating the reason for requesting refugee status. The next step is submitting the package to any of the Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices. Only the asylum seekers who completed all the forms are appointed for an interview with an immigration officer, who can decide if the claim will be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Those granted the status of protected person by the Immigration and Refugee Board can apply for a permanent residence in Canada. If the claim is rejected, the applicant might request a decision review before being asked to leave the country.
Canada runs a resettlement assistance programme for refugees who arrive in the country, which offers temporary accommodation and support in finding permanent housing. Temporary health care services are available free of charge for refugees and asylum seekers. The authorities have also set the Immigration Loans Program, which is designed to help people seeking protection to cover the costs of their travel to Canada and of the documents needed to enter the country, as well as the expenses of medical examinations required before travelling.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
So far, the United States of America has been criticised over its response in the current refugee crisis. Compared to other countries in the world, taking in a larger number of refugees would barely pressure the social system of the USA. However, due to security concerns, the government does not soften its approach towards asylum seekers.
In 2015, the United States of America resettled almost 70,000 refugees, most of them coming from Burma, Iraq, and Somalia. However, the authorities are planning to accept more applications in the following years. The USA might accept around 85,000 applications in 2016, out of which 10,000 places will be available to Syrian refugees. The number of resettled refugees might be 100,000 in 2017, which will probably be the largest number of refugees admitted in the country since the Balkan wars (in 1993, 142,000 people were granted refugee status, as a response to the tense situation from the Balkans).
There are two ways a person can request asylum. First one is through an affirmative process and it is applied if the person is located in the USA, regardless the fact that he/she is making the request at a border office or after a period of time from the arrival in the country. Nevertheless, the application must be submitted within one year after the arrival in the USA, with only a few exceptions. The application must be submitted to a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, who will schedule an interview to determine if the person is eligible for the refugee status.
The second way to apply for the refugee status is through a defensive asylum processing, if the person is considered ineligible at the end of an affirmative processing, or if the person seeking asylum is not legally staying in the US or not having proper documentation at a port of entry in the country. In this case, the asylum seeker will be part of a procedure consisting of a removal hearing in an immigration court with the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The asylum seeker can appeal the decision denying refugee status. In this case, the final deicision will be given after the additional hearings with the Board of Immigration Appeals or, sometimes, with federal courts. A person granted refugee status receives emplyoment authorisation and depending on several other factors, might be given financial and educational support, accomodation, and health care assistance.
French authorities have struggled to manage the situation of the asylum seekers who previously reached France. One example is the rather problematic issue of the refugee camp situated on the outskirts of Calais, a city which also shelters many illegal immigrants. The camp has been the source of many disputes between the French and the British government, with both of them failing to integrate the people trying to cross the French – British border illegaly, via Calais. Recently, after the Paris terrorist attacks, the French government has asked for stricter controls at the borders of the European Union, in order to detect asylum seekers or illegal immigrants who use false ID cards or passports to enter the EU.
France received around 12,000 refugees in 2015, from which large numbers are citizens of Iraq and Syria. However, according to recent statistics, France rejects more than 74% of the applications of asylum seekers.
Before applying for refugee status, asylum seekers must register a claim at a Prefecture, providing information regarding their identity, civil status, travel documentation, and address (if the asylum seeker already stays in France). They are given an asylum claim certification and advice on their rights and obligations throughtout the next steps of the procedure.
Later, asylum seeker can officially apply for asylum. The applications must be filled in with all the required information in a complete manner, accentuating the reasons for submitting the application. The asylum seekers shall write their applications in French and submit it to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons. The asylum seeker can object the decision on the asylum claim before the Administrative Court.
Poland has been one of the EU’s skeptics concerning asylum seekers. The Polish government did not completely reject the idea of resettling refugees in Poland, but asked for stricter border controls and efficient common refugee plans in the European Union.
Poland received more than 8,000 applications in 2015 and granted refugee status, subsidiary protection, and humanitarian protection to 550 people. However, in 2015’s autumn, the country still had around 3,000 applications to assess. The majority of the protection requests came from Russia, but only a small number of them were admitted, the applicants being granted refugee status or any other form of protection. Even though only a few hundred applications came from Syrian and Iraqi citizens, none of the applications assessed by September 2015 were rejected.
The applications must be submitted to the Commander (or District Commander) of the Border Guard, which sends it to the Office for Foreigners. Elderly persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, persons in hospitals or imprisoned can submit their application via postal mail. The travel documents provided by the asylum seekers will remain at the Head of Office for Foreigners, but asylum seekers are given a temporary ID document, which gives them the right to stay in Poland, for an initial period of ninety days, then for six months. The validity of the ID document prolonged every six months by the Head of the Office for Foreigners until the authorities give the asylum seeker a final decision regarding his/her application.
Those granted refugee status in Poland have the same rights as Polish citizens, except the right to vote and some rights connected to the labour market in the European Union. They are given the right to travel without a visa in the EU (but only for a period of three months) and can be part of an individual integration programme.
This article was originally published in the tenth issue of the magazine, which can be accessed here.