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Japan must rethink its restrictive immigration policy

Govt should address areas of ambiguity and uncertainty rather than push through a new law
The sister of a Sri Lankan woman, Wishma Sandamali, who died while in Japanese immigration detention, carries a picture of her late sister as she walks to the Nagoya District Court on March 4, 2022, to file a lawsuit against the government of Japan

The sister of a Sri Lankan woman, Wishma Sandamali, who died while in Japanese immigration detention, carries a picture of her late sister as she walks to the Nagoya District Court on March 4, 2022, to file a lawsuit against the government of Japan. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 12, 2023 04:04 AM GMT
Updated: May 12, 2023 04:18 AM GMT

A contentious bill that aims to change the nation's immigration legislation has been passed by the House of Representatives in Japan.

The bill has now gone to the House of Councilors for further discussion despite facing fierce resistance from groups who support asylum seekers and have claimed that the suggested amendments could potentially imperil people who are at risk of persecution in their home countries.

The changes in the law would in fact give authorities the ability to deport people who repeatedly request refugee status.

Currently, Japan has no legal means of deporting foreign nationals while their applications for refugee status are still pending. It is in fact an open secret that in an effort to extend their stay in the country for years, many people have been abusing this loophole by submitting several applications, with the essential help of local social workers and lawyers.

The government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida now intends to address the issue by changing immigration rules.

Japan's legal framework for asylum seekers is primarily governed by the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. This law defines the criteria for granting refugee status and outlines the procedures for refugee recognition, and this criterion has been known for having exceedingly stringent standards.

"This amendment can possibly lead to the repatriation of individuals in 'good faith'"

In recent years, the government has introduced new laws to address the increasing number of asylum applications and improve the efficiency of the recognition process.

One major stage in the recent amendment bill is aimed at enabling the deportation of individuals who repeatedly apply for refugee status. And here is where the detractors argue that this amendment can possibly lead to the repatriation of individuals in "good faith," that is those who are actually facing persecution in their home countries and not just the so-called "free riders."

Examining the statistical trends provides a broader perspective on Japan's acceptance of asylum seekers. In 2022, for example, Japan granted refugee status to 202 individuals, which may seem incredibly low, but actually marks a record high since the program's inception in 1982.

This indicates a growing trend in the political will to recognize the need to provide refuge to those fleeing actual persecution and conflict. But despite the increase in the number of recognized refugees, Japan's figures still lag behind those of European countries and the United States.

These countries often accept tens of thousands of refugee and asylum claims annually, but it must also be added that in these countries the language and cultural barriers are far lower.

Japan has surely witnessed a rise in the number of asylum applications over the years, especially with the current war in Ukraine that has brought some 2,300 individuals, mostly women. While exact figures vary annually, this trend highlights the increasing demand for international protection within the country. It also emphasizes the need for a comprehensive and efficient refugee recognition process that is lacking. The success rate of asylum applications in Japan remains relatively low.

"Since 2007, a total of 17 foreign nationals have died in immigration detention centers across Japan"

The recent amendment change in the immigration law also aims to address prolonged detentions which can often lead to very adverse experiences and outcomes. And there have been very notable and striking examples in the recent past.

In December 2021, a hearing at the Mito District Court featured a video showing a Cameroonian man in agony. He was pleading for help while at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center. The man, who had multiple health issues, including diabetes, died the next day. The video revealed that his requests for assistance were ignored, raising questions about the facility's handling of the situation.

Partial footage of Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who died at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in March 2021, was also recently exposed. The footage showed her falling from a bed and desperately asking for help. Lawyers representing Wishma argued that her situation could have been resolved if the immigration bureau had promptly called for medical assistance.

Another detainee, Louis Christian Mballa, who experienced prolonged detention at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, reported health problems and being denied access to medical care, even when he requested it.

Since 2007, a total of 17 foreign nationals have died in immigration detention centers across Japan, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan. However, the government has yet to fully acknowledge its responsibility in these cases.

As the G7 summit in Hiroshima approaches, it is imperative for Japan to prioritize the enhancement of its immigration laws, addressing the areas of ambiguity and uncertainty. Instead, valuable time and resources have been poured towards contentious debates surrounding LGBT discrimination, which have disproportionately dominated public discourse in recent months.

Instead of chasing windmills Japan would better be served by refining policies that have the potential to yield tangible results.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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