The bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act has been passed into law. It will allow the Japanese government to make sure that foreign nationals without valid visas are returned home. The revised law will come into force within a year.
Human rights must be respected regardless of an individual's nationality or origin. The recent legal revision could undermine this universal principle.
The controversial bill's content was almost identical to that of one scrapped two years ago after the death of Sri Lankan woman Wishma Sandamali at a detention center became a matter of social concern. The revised law lacks consideration for those who are faced with circumstances prohibiting them from going back to their home countries.
Protest rallies and demonstrations against the revision have been held near the Diet building and elsewhere in Japan. A United Nations human rights expert has also voiced concern over the matter.
Nevertheless, the bill was voted on in the June 9 House of Councillors plenary session.
One particular problem with the law is the provision to effectively limit refugee recognition applications to two per person. The government will be able to deport an asylum-seeker even when they're in the middle of their screening process if it's their third or subsequent application. The Japanese government claims that this provision is to prevent some people from abusing the system to stay in the country.
Possibly putting life in danger
That said, from a global perspective, Japan has remained reluctant to accept refugees.
According to a refugee support group, there has been only one case of refugee recognition among Kurds of Turkish nationality who, fearing persecution at home, have fled to Japan. A majority of Myanmar people who cannot return to their country ruled by the oppressive military regime and who remain in Japan have not been granted asylum.
To restrict refugee status applicants without correcting these situations could result in forcing those who should be protected back to high-risk places.
Refugee recognition is linked to human life. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees urges giving applicants the benefit of the doubt. Naoko Hashimoto, associate professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, who appeared in a Diet session as an unsworn witness, said deporting a refugee is equivalent to "execution" in some cases.
A new system of "supplementary protection" was established in the revised law. This will be applied to war evacuees and others accepted based on a status equivalent to refugees. These people must show that they have a legitimate fear of persecution if returned home for reasons other than those stipulated in the Refugee Convention, such as for their race or religion. If strictly enforced, the new system would exclude many people.
While the government stresses that refugee status screening is done properly, questions were raised during Diet meetings regarding the work of refugee examination counselors -- a group of experts appointed by the justice minister. In groups of three, international legal scholars and those in the legal profession screen appeals made by applicants who have been denied asylum.
There are 111 such counselors, but just one of them, a nonprofit refugee support group manager, has been involved in handling 1/4 of all appeal cases heard by the counselors last year.
This counselor has said there are "only a few applicants who can be recognized as refugees." The Immigrations Services Agency of Japan has quoted this person as a rationale for the need to revise the immigration law. We cannot dispel our suspicions that the agency arbitrarily had them handle more cases than the others.
The screening process needs to be separated from agencies in charge of regulating entries and residency. An independent third-party body should be established.
Swift reconsideration needed
There are many foreign nationals in Japan who can't return to their home countries because they have families here. Of those who have not left Japan despite being issued a deportation notice, about 200 people were aged 17 or younger. Though being born and raised in Japan, they don't have a valid visa, and are put in an unreasonable position.
We also have seen endless cases of foreign workers in the technical training internship program losing their visa after escaping poor working environments.
Japan should be flexible and grant visas to these people. But the revised law doesn't pay enough attention to them. What's more, a new penalty has been set up in the event an individual, who is deemed likely to obstruct deportation process considering their past behavior, violates an expulsion order.
The incentive to revise the immigration law came from the issue of long detentions of people given deportation orders. To address this, the revised law will set up new "supervisory measures" where such people live outside detention under the supervision of their supporters or lawyers. However, some 90% of refugee and immigrant supporters said they either couldn't or didn't want to assume the supervisory role. This is because they will be required to report to the immigration agency and will have to monitor those people. There is no telling if this new system will function.
It's clear that the revised law is riddled with problems from the perspective of respecting the human rights of foreign nationals in Japan. The government needs to urgently consider reexamining the revisions.