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Japan Mulls Closing Another Door to Refugees

A new amendment would make Japan’s strict immigration policies even stricter.

By , a freelance journalist and was a 2019-2020 Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Japan Times.
Migrant workers protest for better labor laws in Tokyo.
Migrant workers take part in an annual demonstration to demand equality and address poor labor practices toward foreign workers in Ueno district, Tokyo, on March 3, 2019. Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Japan granted asylum to less than 1 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers who applied in 2019, despite having the third-largest economy in the world. Germany, which has a similar GDP, took around 53 percent of refugees in the same year. Japan needs the labor and population growth that immigrants could offer. With an aging population and a rapidly decreasing workforce, classrooms in some rural parts of the country are empty and many farms are deserted.

Migration to Japan is rising, particularly from Southeast Asian countries battered by the climate crisis, but it still shuts its doors to those in need. Geographic isolation and hefty donations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have long allowed Japan to evade international criticism for its restrictive immigration laws. It now faces mounting pressure from human rights organizations to offer refuge to more asylum-seekers and refugees—but instead, the Japanese parliament is considering new legislation to make its strict policies even stricter.

Japan granted asylum to less than 1 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers who applied in 2019, despite having the third-largest economy in the world. Germany, which has a similar GDP, took around 53 percent of refugees in the same year. Japan needs the labor and population growth that immigrants could offer. With an aging population and a rapidly decreasing workforce, classrooms in some rural parts of the country are empty and many farms are deserted.

Migration to Japan is rising, particularly from Southeast Asian countries battered by the climate crisis, but it still shuts its doors to those in need. Geographic isolation and hefty donations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have long allowed Japan to evade international criticism for its restrictive immigration laws. It now faces mounting pressure from human rights organizations to offer refuge to more asylum-seekers and refugees—but instead, the Japanese parliament is considering new legislation to make its strict policies even stricter.

Last year, the Ministry of Justice formed a subcommittee to address an increase in people seeking asylum and migrants in detention in Japan. The move followed increased attention on its immigration detention facilities, including after a Nigerian migrant died while on a hunger strike at a center in Nagasaki in 2019. The subcommittee proposed an amendment to current immigration law that would abolish the rights of asylum-seekers to reapply for refugee status and criminalize those who refuse their deportation orders.

On Feb. 19, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet approved the revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, and the conservative majority is expected to pass it. The National Diet still has to vote on the amendment, leaving time for changes to be made before the summer recess. The opposition hopes to use this opportunity to push for modifications, but doing so requires the support of a Japanese public unaccustomed to grassroots advocacy for political change.

Currently, the amendment would remove an existing provision that suspends a deportation order while an asylum-seeker appeals a decision or reapplies for recognition. Rejected applicants who refuse a deportation order would be transferred into the criminal system. With the law’s revisions, asylum-seekers could apply only twice before receiving a deportation order, with penalties imposed upon refusal. Finally, the new amendment does not add a limit to the indefinite period of detention for asylum-seekers who have been issued deportation orders, despite condemnation from the United Nations and from human rights groups.

Lawyers and groups assisting asylum-seekers in the repeal or reapplication process would be considered “accomplices in crime.”

Lawyers and groups assisting asylum-seekers in the repeal or reapplication process would be considered “accomplices in crime,” according to an unofficial group of Japanese immigration lawyers that spoke out against the changes in a statement to Foreign Policy. “This would in effect criminalize refugees for their otherwise lawful execution of their rights to apply for refugee asylum. It would criminalize their effort to avoid being returned to the site of deadly persecution,” the statement said.

Despite signing onto the 1951 Refugee Convention, Japan had little immigration infrastructure of its own until the current law was passed in 2018. Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced the act to accept more foreign workers to fill the gaps of the aging workforce, but it failed to shift the government’s approach toward refugees and asylum-seekers. Although Japan earned some credit for liberalizing its policies, it actually tightened rules for refugees and asylum-seekers, including cutting the rights of asylum-seekers to work while their applications are under consideration.

Chie Komai, an immigration lawyer in Japan, said the proposed tightening of the law for those issued deportation orders is especially devastating because Japan’s refugee recognition system is already so restrictive. “The point is that in Japan, [the] refugee recognition rate is just under 0.5 percent,” she said. Children of immigrants born and raised in Japan who haven’t been granted residency, spouses of Japanese nationals, and people who have lived in Japan for decades could also be subject to the new law.

Some provisions in the amendment leave much to the discretion of immigration authorities. One mechanism allows certain detainees to be released if they can pay up to 3 million yen, or around $28,000; eligibility is determined by the authorities. Another part of the legislation aims to protect so-called quasi-refugees, or people who don’t meet the government’s standards for asylum but cannot return to their home countries for safety concerns.

Many members of the opposition have come out against the amendment and Japan’s refugee policy more generally. “To make it very simple, it’s the wrong direction,” said Michihiro Ishibashi of the Constitutional Democracy Party. “They are supposed to improve the immigration policy or refugee recognition schemes in Japan, but, on the contrary, they are trying to make it tougher. I am personally very much ashamed that our refugee recognition is only 0.4 percent—20 to 30 people each year. We really need to take more responsibility for this.”

The death of the Nigerian asylum-seeker in Nagasaki in 2019 increased attention on Japan’s immigration detention system. The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act does not define detainment, which means there are no parameters around how long individuals can be detained or how they are treated. In a detailed brief published last September, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned Japan for violating international human rights law by detaining foreigners for an indefinite period of time after denying their asylum claims and issuing deportation orders.

The U.N. report detailed the experiences of Deniz Yengin, a Kurdish man, and Heydar Safari Diman, an Iranian man. Both men participated in long-term hunger strikes during their five-and four-and-a-half-year detentions, respectively. According to the brief, Diman’s detention had a “serious psychological impact” on him and his hunger strike caused a “life-threatening” condition. Yengin has filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government, alleging that immigration officers used excessive force against him in 2019. A video released in January 2020 shows several immigration personnel beating Yengin. (The immigration bureau acknowledged “misconduct” but denied any illegal activity.)

Ishibashi and other members of the opposition submitted a refugee protection bill in February that urged the government to create a framework for refugee recognition that meets international standards and advocates for a more transparent system for granting asylum. While the opposition bill now has no chance of passing, the group still hopes to garner public support for modifying or even withdrawing the government’s amendment. “If we bring up more public awareness, then that can affect more proper changes to the government bill,” Ishibashi said.

Public support for political issues in Japan can be hard to achieve, especially on immigration.

Public support for political issues in Japan can be hard to achieve, especially on immigration. Japan’s isolated and homogenous history keeps most issues of diversity and inclusivity out of public debate. Without significant immigration, Japan has avoided some of the open clashes seen in Western societies, but racism still goes unaddressed. Discrimination against Korean residents in particular has a long history in Japan. Although activism is growing and many Japanese seem open to an increase in asylum-seekers, the public is still unlikely to engage in grassroots movements to change government policy.

With limited government support for refugees, smaller organizations are currently filling the gap. The Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo, supports thousands of immigrants each year—offering shelter, case management, social counseling, medical and psychological care, language support, funding, and lawyers. Their Alternatives to Detention program works in tandem with the government to assist a select number of asylum-seekers.

But the organization is limited in how many people it is able to help, according to Eri Ishikawa, the chair of JAR’s board. The government’s selection of asylum-seekers eligible for the program appears random, and even those who do receive services don’t always get refugee status. Between 2011 and 2019, the program assisted just 36 people, with six granted status, Ishikawa said.

When the bill inevitably passes, the changes to Japan’s immigration law might fade into the background, but it could trigger even stronger international and local backlash. Japan doesn’t often attract the attention of human rights groups, suggesting the issue won’t just be pushed aside. “We have to do more. Of course we have to win because if we lose this fight, it means that Japanese society just keeps on closing doors,” Komai said.

The cabinet’s approval of the new amendment shows that Japan remains on a path of isolationism and homogeneity. But as migration keeps rising, Japan’s empty classrooms and deserted farms are likely to provoke more questions about why exactly those doors remain closed.

David Slater contributed to this article.

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is a freelance journalist and was a 2019-2020 Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Japan Times. Twitter: @jesschaselubitz

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