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Editorial: Tightening Japan's immigration regs no excuse to trample human rights

A government expert committee has submitted its recommendations for dealing with the problem of foreign citizens being held for months, and in some cases years, at Japan's immigration detention centers.

The committee has called for a system of penalties for foreigners who ignore deportation orders, as well as for the government to consider how to handle people who make repeated refugee claims. The proposed rules are notable for their severity.

As of the end of 2019, there were 1,054 people being held at Immigration Service Agency of Japan detention facilities. Of those, 462 had been locked up for six months or more. According to the agency, the long-term detentions are due to people refusing to be repatriated. However, most foreigners without a legal residency status have left Japan after being ordered to do so. In a great many cases where a person has refused to go, it is because their lives would be endangered if they went home, or because they have families in Japan.

In light of this, it is questionable whether imposing penalties for those refusing deportation orders would have a significant impact on repatriation. We rather worry that the move will result in shrinking support for foreigners who cannot go home.

The committee's recommendation that measures be considered to deport refugee claimants mid-application in exceptional cases was apparently based on the recognition that there are quite a few people abusing the system by filing repeated claims to avoid leaving Japan. However, deporting a person who may be a refugee is forbidden under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

We must wonder if, considering the scant few people granted refugee status here compared with global norms, this country's refugee system isn't too strict already. A total of 10,375 people applied for refugee status in Japan last year. Of those, only 44 were accepted. Perhaps the government had best rethink its evaluation process before talking about mid-application deportations.

Taking a foreigner to an immigration detention center is supposed to be preparation for them to be deported. Many other places have legal maximums for how long a person can be detained in this way. For example, the upper limit in the European Union is six months. There is no such rule in Japan. However, the expert committee report does not address limiting detention times in a concrete way. It does call for a review mechanism to be created for cases where a person has been held for a certain length of time, to evaluate whether continued detention is appropriate. However, we believe these reviews should not be conducted by the immigration agency or its parent, the Justice Ministry, but by the courts.

The United Nations has expressed concerns about Japan's immigration system on multiple occasions. Last year, a Nigerian man who had been held at a detention center for three and a half years died of starvation following a hunger strike.

To avoid long-term detentions, the government should consider a flexible approach to granting temporary leave permission to detainees, allowing them back out into the world for a set time. Special consideration is also needed for those detainees with families and well-established lives in Japan.

Strengthening immigration management in this country cannot be made an excuse to obviate the human rights of foreign citizens.

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