National / Social Issues

Japan's immigration chief optimistic asylum and visa woes will improve in 2020

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

With Japan expecting to welcome a record 40 million visitors in 2020, including for the Summer Games, immigration authorities are strengthening security to manage the influx and prevent abuse of their policies.

“We need to enhance measures to prevent any terror attacks,” said Shoko Sasaki, chief of the Immigration Services Agency. Sasaki was referring to attacks including the 1972 Munich massacre, in which Palestinian group Black September stormed the Olympic Village and killed 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer during the Summer Games.

“We’re doing our utmost to prevent such incidents with a sense of vigilance,” she added, “because we don’t want to allow anything like that to happen in Tokyo.”

In an interview with The Japan Times, Sasaki also spoke of the agency’s goals for 2020 and projects it has run since its reorganization on April 1.

Sasaki, 58, is the first commissioner of the agency, which used to be the Immigration Bureau. The upgrade took place at the same time the government introduced new visa statuses to lure more workers to Japan.

The ISA is tasked with overseeing immigration clearance and deportations, as well as managing and supporting expatriates here by preparing an environment amenable to working.

“During the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the number of visitors will be higher than usual and we want to ensure safety for all people legally coming to Japan during that period,” Sasaki said.

Shoko Sasaki, commissioner of the Immigration Services Agency, is interviewed at the Justice Ministry on Dec. 20. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Shoko Sasaki, commissioner of the Immigration Services Agency, is interviewed at the Justice Ministry on Dec. 20. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Japan broke its tourism record in the first half with an estimated 16.63 million arrivals, up 4.6 percent from a year ago, according to government data. The government has set a target of 40 million annually by 2020 and 60 million by 2030.

Sasaki noted visitors to Japan can benefit from mobile fingerprint terminals, which have already been deployed at 18 major airports — including Haneda in Tokyo and Narita — to ease congestion and smoothen customs procedures.

Six airports, including Haneda, are also using facial recognition systems to identify incoming Japanese and departing visitors.

The commissioner said she was hopeful the advanced technology will allow officers to focus on detecting illegal entry and preventing those who pose risks to Japan from crossing its borders.

Sasaki added that tightening immigration control is needed to cope with misuse of the refugee system.

Japan saw a sharp rise in asylum-seekers after a 2010 revision granted work permits to applicants who had been waiting longer than six months for screenings. But the revision caused a steep increase in applicants ineligible for work permits.

After the Justice Ministry introduced a stricter process in January 2018, the number of asylum-seekers dropped to 10,493 from 19,629 the year before. Only 42 people were granted refugee status in 2018, with another 40 granted humanitarian protection.

The ministry also took measures to speed up the screening process.

“The refugee system has been established to swiftly grant asylum to people who need protection but … in recent years, the number of people misusing the system has risen and the problem is still prevalent,” Sasaki said.

“In the screening process, officers are overloaded with applications submitted by foreigners coming with the intent to stay in Japan for financial reasons, which hinders proceedings for asylum-seekers who meet the requirements of the Refugee Convention.”

In recent years, Japan has been cracking down on illegal immigrants. Many get prolonged detention, and some have resorted to hunger strikes.

In 2018 alone, immigration officials deported 16,269 people for overstaying visas, engaging in activities other than those permitted and other violations.

As of the end of June, 1,253 were detained at immigration centers nationwide, with more than half jailed for six months or more.

Sasaki said the agency has set up a panel to draft measures to improve how authorities deal with illegal migrants and that its proposals are expected by March.

“It’s one of the pressing issues we need to address as soon as possible,” she said.

However, the agency welcomes and is seeking to accept more foreign labor to ease the national shortage.

In April, Japan created new visa statuses for blue-collar workers with certain skills to help ease shortages in 14 sectors, including agriculture and hospitality. Over a five-year period, up to 345,000 are expected to enter Japan under the program. But as of Dec. 13, only 1,732 had obtained working permits.

Sasaki admitted implementation was behind schedule, partly due to complex procedures in Japan and precautionary steps by states abroad to protect those applying.

But Sasaki believes the program will get back on track next year.

“By March, an estimated 10,000 foreigners are expected to take (the Japanese and other) skills tests,” she said.

“The forecasted figures reflect demand in sectors struggling with acute labor shortages,” Sasaki emphasized, noting that 345,000 was not a goal, but the number actually needed in those sectors. “Given the demand, I believe the number of people participating in the program will eventually get close to the predicted figure.”

As of Dec. 13, 4,962 had passed skills tests taken in Japan and abroad, and another 4,357 had begun related procedures.

Sasaki said that, with a well-established support network, she expects the program to be free of the rights violations rife in the state-sponsored Technical Training Intern Program, long criticized as a cover for cheap labor and a hotbed for abuse. Some trainees have even fled their workplaces to seek illegal employment in Japan.

The agency has proposed a package of around 170 policy measures to make life easier for those who have acquired the new visas statuses, including foreign-language support as well as Japanese classes.

“But the agency will remain alert for potential violations of the technical intern program, which keep occurring,” she said.

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