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'I'll be killed': Asylum-seeker fears for his life as Japan passes revised immigration law

People protest against a bill to revise Japan's immigration law in front of the Diet building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 8, 2023. (Mainichi/Kenji Ikai)

TOKYO -- Refugee status applicants in Japan and their supporters are voicing concern over the revised immigration law, passed in the Diet on June 9, which will allow the Japanese government to send asylum-seekers back to their home countries after their third request.

    While applicants of refugee status in Japan are now granted temporary release from detention while they are being processed by the immigration authority, the recently passed revision will change this rule.

    "I'll be killed if I get sent back," a Myanmar man in his 40s living in Tokyo told the Mainichi Shimbun, in a frightened tone. The man, who is an ethnic minority in his home country, joined a democratic movement in the latter half of the 1990s when the country was under military regime. Fearing for his safety, he fled to Japan in 2002 via South Korea. He first applied for refugee status with the Japanese government in 2006 but has been turned down, and is in the screening process for his fifth application.

    The man has participated in pro-democratization protests in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo, and he has been in the media coverage of such protest rallies. "I'll be detained by the military or police if I go back. I'm begging (the Japanese government) to reconsider."

    Takeshi Ohashi, an attorney serving as the secretary-general of a defense team for Kurdish refugees in Japan, slammed the legal revision as "potentially putting many people in a life or death situation." He added, "I doubt the lawmakers (who voted for the revision) can take the responsibility."

    Ohashi says many Kurds whom he takes care of have applied for refugee recognition twice or more. He explained, "Since those who are on temporary release (from detention) are summoned by immigration offices regularly, they can be taken to an airport one day and just be told that they're set to be sent back." He continued, "This is really terrifying."

    Ohashi touched on a case where a person who was denied refugee status in Japan was recognized as a refugee in New Zealand and other places, and emphasized, "Even the current screening process doesn't save those who should be saved."

    Critics have pointed out that making deportation possible for refugee status applicants while they're still being processed may violate "the principle of non-refoulement" under the Refugee Convention which bans returning a refugee to "territories where their life or freedom would be threatened."

    Reiko Ogawa, a Chiba University professor of immigrations studies who also serves as a refugee examination counselor, says of the revised law, "It's putting the cart before the horse to enforce deportation authority when refugee protection is not adequate." She added, "I suspect there will be cases violating the non-refoulement principle. Japan needs to consider seriously about refugee protection in line with international standards."

    (Japanese original by Tohru Shirakawa, Tokyo Regional News Department and Yukinao Kin, Digital News Group)

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