Media watch: The inevitability of the immigration law revision

Ushiku Immigration Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, where many undocumented foreigners are detained (Tokyo Shimbun)

We’ve written in the past about the Japanese government’s treatment of asylum seekers, and the revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that the ruling coalition has been working on for years to close inconvenient loopholes was supposed to be passed two years ago, but wasn’t due to issues with timing and public opinion. We wrote about the specific problems with that bill in March 2021, when it wasn’t certain it would fail, but it did. Now it’s back, and the media are saying it will likely be passed this time. 

As we also wrote at the time, the original revision was mostly accepted by the mainstream media because all they did was parrot the government’s talking points. The exception, as is often the case with government policy, was Tokyo Shimbun, which in the meantime has continued to cover the matter without compromising its editorial conscience. After the revised revision was approved by the Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee on April 28 with the votes of four parties—the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito; Nippon Ishin no Kai, and Kokumin Minshuto—Tokyo Shimbun explained that the LDP’s next step would be to get the revision passed in the Lower House in “early May.” Summarizing the purport of the bill, the newspaper said it is meant to “solve the problem of people remaining in detention for a long time,” a situation that has led to at least two detainees dying in custody, even if they weren’t necessarily asylum-seekers. The reason for the long detention under current law is that, while a self-identified refugee is in the process of applying for asylum they cannot be forcibly deported, but since they are by government definition “undocumented” they must be detained. Over the years, this sort of detention of foreign nationals has become a huge PR problem for the Japanese government, since it draws the attention of overseas human rights organizations, including some associated with the UN. As has always been obvious since the first revision was proposed in 2021, the government has no intention of giving in to these groups but rather is trying to avoid the whole problem of having refugee applicants sitting in jail for months and even years. The new revision effectively sets a limit for asylum applications at three, meaning after the third rejection, the applicant can be forced to return to their home country, regardless of whether they attempt to reapply. Critics of the revision have said, in Tokyo Shimbun’s words, that if it is passed in its present form it would be like “pressing the button for these refugees’ execution,” meaning that they would be sent back to the countries they escaped from and there would likely face arrest and further persecution, maybe even death. The government has said that the purpose of the three-time application limit is to prevent “abuse” of the system, which, for all intents and purposes, does not really consitute a system at all. As we have written repeatedly, applications for asylum are routinely rejected by immigration authorities (who have the sole authority to detain them—Japan is the only rich country in the world where courts have no say in immigrant detention, meaning they do not receive the due process guaranteed by the Constitution), who essentially say they don’t believe that the applicants are in any danger in their home countries because they do not submit sufficient “documentary proof” of their persecution. In other words, they can say anything they want, which usually comes down to the judgement that self-identified refugees are lying about their situations and coming to Japan for “economic reasons.”

All of these objections were supposedly covered in the committee hearings, but it passed the revision anyway. Internationally, Japan’s bar for receiving asylum is considered way too high, despite the fact that Japan is a signatory to the 1951 UN convention related to the status of refugees. However, as has been widely reported for many years, Japan only accepts a handful each year, which is miniscule compared to Germany (25 percent of applicants) and the U.S. (32 percent). In 2021, Japan’s approval rate was 0.7 percent. Even more dire, the children of asylum seekers are left in bureaucratic limbo the whole time they are in Japan, including those who were born in Japan after their refugee parents arrived. Asylum seekers, even during the application process, are not covered by medical insurance and have no right to employment. During the law committee discussions the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan offered a compromise to the LDP, saying that if the government gave resident status to children of applicants who were born in Japan, they would vote for the revision, but, according to Tokyo Shimbun, “further discussion [over the matter] broke down.” Apparently, one of the reasons the ruling coalition objects to granting status to such children—who know directly of no other country except Japan—is that they could then be used as extortionary wedges to win their parents’ refugee status; which just goes to show how unserious the government is about refugees in the first place. At the very least, Japan’s ratification of the international protocol guaranteeing basic human rights for children in 1994 should mean that these children, which number about 4,000—200 of whom were born here—are afforded “protection” by the state, but that’s not the case.

Tokyo Shimbun asserts that the reason the original revision died in 2021 was that the public didn’t support it, and, in fact, the current revision has been met with large demonstrations outside the Diet building that have mostly gone unreported by the mainstream media. As Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who has worked on the issue for many years, told the newspaper, public opinion is the only force that can discourage the government from pursuing the revision, and, according to various surveys, the Japanese people do realize to a certain extent that if Japan is to remain a prosperous country, it needs to allow more foreign people in. However, the government retains the right to decide just which foreigners are acceptable and, apparently, the desperate nature of refugees’ desire to enter Japan makes them too much of a risk; or, at least, that’s the implication. Another part of the revision that makes it almost impossible for applicants to be accepted is that anyone who is given even provisional release to stay in Japan must be under the care of a guarantor who monitors the applicant’s movements. Given how difficult it is to find such guarantors, the applicants’ likelihood of receiving even provisional release is almost nil. 

Tokyo Shimbun’s reporting acknowledges the hypocrisy inherent in the new legislation. Last month the Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council sent a letter to the government pointing out that the revisions to the refugee law did not uphold the “international standards” to which Japan had pledged when it signed various human rights protocols in the past. Japan’s Minister of Justice, Ken Saito, dismissed the letter by saying it wasn’t “legally binding,” which is a weak defense of the government’s position in light of the UN’s human rights aims. Moreover, he protested that the rapporteurs had “unilaterally” published their missive. For sure, the UN has a lot of problems, but it’s difficult to imagine how Saito could have responded to the rapporteurs’ concerns in any viable way. At least the UN tries to get countries on the same page with regard to rights that most people of conscience agree are fundamental. By waving away the rapporteurs’ letter, Saito is essentially saying that what the rest of the world thinks is not important: Human rights in Japan are what Japan says they are, and as the LDP’s campaign to change the Constitution into an instrument that defines people’s responsibilities rather than guarantee their rights has shown, the very term “human rights” means something different here. It’s clear Japan doesn’t want anyone even to attempt to enter the country as a refugee, so it should just come out and say so openly in order to convince potential refugees that they shouldn’t make the attempt. And while Japan is at it, it should remove its name from all those treaties it signed or ratified. That would be the honest thing to do. 

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