TOKYO (Reuters) - As the worst refugee crisis since World War Two forces Europe to break down hurdles and accept tens of thousands of migrants, Japan, which took in just 11 asylum seekers last year, is looking to clamp down even tighter.
Measures including deporting failed applicants, curbs on repeat applications and pre-screening of new asylum seekers are being considered as part of changes to the country's immigration system, an official said.
If implemented, the changes would make Japan an even harder-to-reach destination, activists say. The country is already one of the developed world's least welcoming countries for refugees, accepting fewer than a dozen of a record 5,000 asylum seekers in 2014.
"We're not looking to increase or decrease the number of refugees coming to Japan, but to ensure real refugees are assessed quickly," said Hiroaki Sato, a Ministry of Justice official overseeing the proposals.
On Wednesday, around 100 foreigners on "provisional release" from immigration detention - many of them asylum seekers - marched through Tokyo's government district in the driving rain, calling for refugee visas.
"The system is so difficult already," said Ali Jafari, a 54-year-old Iranian who said he came to Japan as a political refugee. "To make it tighter is just cruel."
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Tuesday it expected at least 850,000 people to head to Europe this year, many of them refugees from Syria's four-year civil war. The scale of the crisis has led the European Union to move towards quotas for acceptance of asylum seekers.
But Japan's government does not see escaping war as a legitimate reason for claiming asylum, and has no plans to widen its criteria to include flight from conflict, said Sato.
To qualify, an asylum seeker must prove they individually face persecution on grounds of religion, race or political beliefs.
The strict interpretation of refugee law, and the country's geographical and cultural distance from the Middle East, deter Syrians from seeking asylum in Japan, refugee policy experts say. Only 63 have applied since 2011.
Tokyo gave $167 million to the UNHCR in the first half of this year, making it the second largest government donor. But by tightening its refugee system Japan risks shirking its global duties, say activists.
"As a developed country, there's a responsibility to protect these people," Mitsuru Miyasako, head of rights group Provisional Release Association in Japan.
Immigration is essentially a taboo subject in a Japan that prides itself on its homogeneity.
Despite a graying population causing the tightest labor market for more than two decades - with the construction and manufacturing sectors badly affected - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stuck with curbs on foreign workers, as well as asylum seekers.
The labor shortage reduces Japan's growth potential and dulls the potency of Abe's flagship monetary and fiscal stimulus, an International Monetary Fund working paper said in July.
Abe has taken some steps to address the shortfall, including encouraging more women and elderly people to work. A member of his top economic advisory panel has also proposed lengthening residency periods for professionals.
But relaxing rules on white collar workers will not address shortages in the industries most affected, and more foreign workers "could be an effective strategy to reduce labor shortages," the IMF said.
The scant prospects for any relaxation of rules on manual migrant workers have led many Japanese companies to draw on a gray market of asylum seekers and other cheap foreign workers.
Mahmut Saglam is one of those. A 29-year-old Kurd from Turkey, Saglam claimed asylum in Japan in 2010 after being jailed for protesting against the government, he said.
His asylum application was refused a year later. As he re-applies, he works as a casual demolition workers.
"We do the heaviest work, and companies trust us," he said. "But Japan doesn't want us here."
Reporting by Thomas Wilson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson