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Japan immigration

Japan shelves immigration bill with controversial refugee changes

Amendment would have sped up deportations of asylum seekers

The family of Wishma Sandamali visits the Immigration Services Agency of Japan in Nagoya. Sandamali died in March, turning a spotlight on Japan's handling of refugees.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has shelved a bill that would have changed the country's immigration laws, in response to a parliamentary and public outcry over certain provisions seen as unfriendly toward refugees and asylum seekers.

A lower house committee was due to vote on the amendment bill this week, pushing it toward final passage. But opposition gained ground after the death in March of Wishma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman. Advocates say detention officials in the city of Nagoya failed to provide Sandamali appropriate medical treatment when she complained of stomach pains and other symptoms.

While the bill had some elements sought by refugee advocates, they were particularly concerned by a proposed amendment to Japan's 1951 Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that would have lifted automatic deportation stays. This would have allowed law enforcement to repatriate asylum seekers whose applications are under appeal.

Deporting foreigners without stay permits who have been in Japanese detention for more than three years would also have become easier under the proposed revision.

The government has not given up on the bill entirely and is expected to seek a new time to submit it. But facing low approval ratings over the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's administration and the ruling party apparently concluded that pushing through unpopular bills could have a major negative impact on the upcoming Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July and the lower house election this autumn.

Japan lags behind its fellow advanced economies in refugee resettlements, accepting only 51 refugees in 2020 for a five-year total of 216. Each year, however, Japan ranks among the top donors to the United Nations refugee agency, contributing $126 million last year.

The U.S., contributing nearly $2 billion, has raised its annual refugee quota to 62,500 from the 15,000 cap under Donald Trump. Canada led the world last year with 10,937 asylees.

In written comments on the draft amendment, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned of "a number of aspects that raise very serious concerns ... in light of Japan's obligations under the 1951 convention." The refugee convention, to which Japan is a signatory, instituted the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country from repatriating asylum seekers to a country where they face danger.

The amendment bill was based on recommendations by an expert committee on deportation and detention, convened in 2019 by the Ministry of Justice. Law professors from some of Japan's most prestigious universities comprised the committee, but practicing immigration lawyers said none among their ranks was invited.

The UNHCR has long pushed for receiving countries to separate laws governing refugee and asylum procedures from general immigration policy. "Such efforts to invest resources on quality and prompt decision-making upon first-time applications would help fundamentally address the issues of detention and deportation," wrote the agency.

Some asylees interviewed by Nikkei Asia have spent years in Tokyo's Shinagawa Detention Center awaiting a court date, as the understaffed and undertrained Immigration Services Agency contends with a backlog of around 2,000 applications.

Experts were instructed to discuss ways to end long-term detention and ensure compliance with deportation orders, according to a participant. While the panel recommended establishing a maximum period and judicial review of detention, the amendment bill did not address detention limits.

Aside from persons without legal status detained for more than three years, the amendment would have also lifted deportation stays on asylum seekers applying for a third time, persons suspected of committing or preparing to commit crimes, and individuals under international sanctions.

While international law allows for refugees to be convicted under host country laws, fear of deportation prevents asylum seekers in Japan from turning to police when they suffer crimes. Last year, when Sandamali reported a Sri Lankan man she lived with for domestic violence, the police arrested her instead for overstaying her visa. Sandamali had run out of money to pay tuition fees, failing to retain her student visa.

The bill's withdrawal, however, will delay reforms that advocates have long called for, such as abolishing a requirement for recognized refugees to obtain long-term resident status and reducing requirements for refugees applying for permanent residence.

It would have also extended the validity of refugee permits to five years. Currently, refugees are required to report annually to immigration officials to renew their stay.

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