A fine example for the Tories

Observations on Japan and refugees

If you think British politicians are hard on refugees, look at Japan. In 2003, a typical year, it accepted 26 asylum-seekers. And in case you think nobody wants to go to Japan, that was out of 2,694 new applications. The prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, recently said it is difficult to draw the line between "refugee" and "suspicious person".

Now the country, a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, has shown that it is willing to defy even the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to which it contributed $76m last year. In October, the UNHCR granted Ahmet Kazankiran, a Kurd from eastern Turkey, the status of mandate refugee. Kazankiran had battled long and hard for asylum, holding a hunger strike outside Amnesty International Japan in 2000 and, with his family of six and another refugee family, a sit-in protest outside the UN headquarters in Tokyo for two months last summer.

The status of mandate refugee is usually necessary only when the host country refuses to recognise someone as a genuine asylum-seeker. Most countries accept a UNHCR ruling. Not Japan. On 19 January, its immigration department, in defiance of Japan's obligations under international law, deported Kazankiran and his 21-year-old son Ramazan back to Turkey. No mandate refugee has ever previously been returned to the country from which he or she has fled. Other members of the family are being allowed to stay "for humanitarian reasons". But all that seems to mean is that the government will work with the ministry of justice to resettle them in a third country.

Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, says the case reflects a wider threat to civil liber-ties in Japan. The latest amendments to the country's Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, he says, give the police powers to "hunt foreigners" and pick up any who look "suspicious".

Perhaps Michael Howard, the Tory leader, goes too far when he proposes that Britain renounce the 1951 convention. The British could simply follow the Japanese example and remain a signatory to the convention but just ignore it.