Asylum seekers were allowed to remain in Japan during the processing of their applications regardless of how many attempts they made to obtain refugee status, and now they can be deported after three refusals.
On Friday, Japan adopted a controversial immigration law that, according to the government, is supposed to improve conditions for asylum seekers, but it also allows it to deport those whose applications are rejected several times. This was despite opposition parties and human rights groups objecting.
Before the law was passed, asylum seekers were allowed to remain in Japan while their claims were being processed, regardless of how many attempts they made to obtain refugee status. Now they can be deported after three rejection decisions.
Justice Minister Ken Saito said the amended law would “protect those who need to be protected, and deal strictly with people who break the rules”.
“There are many people who take advantage of the application system to avoid deportation,” even if they are not fleeing danger or persecution, he added.
Last year, Japan accepted only 202 refugees out of 12,500 people who applied for asylum. It separately allowed 1,760 people to remain on its territory for “humanitarian considerations”. It has also received more than 2,400 evacuees from Ukraine under a different framework.
Activists organized demonstrations to protest the amended law, but the objection from the opposition bloc failed in a vote in Parliament, because the ruling coalition has the majority.
An altercation broke out in parliament on Thursday when opposition lawmakers attacked the head of a committee discussing legislative reform, in an attempt to prevent a vote on the amendments.
“It is unacceptable to deport people, even if they have criminal records, to countries where their human rights may be violated” and where “their lives and freedom are in danger,” the Tokyo Bar Association said this week.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party says the amendments will allow better access to medical care and offer accommodation options for people whose asylum applications are still pending.
Immigrant detention conditions in Japan have been under scrutiny since the death of Washma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan, in 2021.
Chandamali was not an asylum-seeker but was being held in Nagoya (center) for staying on an expired visa, and her family is demanding more than $1 million in compensation from the government and holding them responsible for her death.
Reports say Sandamali complained several times of stomach pain and other symptoms, and activists say she has not received proper medical care. The escalating controversy and political pressure over this incident prompted ruling party deputies to abandon activating similar legal amendments to immigration rules two years ago.
Soichi Ibusuke, a lawyer for the Sandamali family, told AFP on Thursday that the amended law “is equivalent to pressing a button to execute asylum seekers by deporting them.”
“The system for identifying refugees in Japan is not working,” he said, with officials quickly rejecting applications, sometimes without face-to-face interviews.
Amnesty International said in March that Japan should abandon a proposed revision of its immigration laws, calling Japan’s detention policies “cruel” and “oppressive”.