The government approved on Friday a bill to resolve the issue of the long-term detention of foreign nationals facing deportation orders, allowing asylum-seekers to be released and giving protection to those who don’t qualify for refugee status under the country’s strict standards.
The bill to revise the immigration law came in response to criticism that the detention of foreign nationals for periods of six months or longer was a violation of their human rights. The government aims to have the legislation enacted during the current ordinary Diet session, set to run through June.
Under the current immigration law, the only way for foreign nationals to enter the country from detention at immigration centers is via provisional release.
The new bill sets up a mechanism called “supervisory measures,” under which detainees can be released if they pay a deposit of up to ¥3 million and if individuals designated by the immigration authorities monitor and report on their situation.
Detainees who abscond following their release would be subject to a jail term of up to a year or a ¥200,000 fine.
The immigration authorities will examine individual cases and decide who will be eligible for the envisioned supervisory measures. They are expected to be used in cases where individuals seek refugee status or where lawsuits associated with such applications are pending.
The legislation also creates a program to protect individuals described as “quasi-refugees,” who do not meet Japanese government conditions for asylum but who cannot return to their country due to civil war or other reasons.
Japan has been criticized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for accepting less than 1% of refugee applications.
On Thursday, five opposition parties in Japan jointly submitted a bill urging the government to recognize refugees according to international standards, pointing out that Japan recognizes fewer applications for asylum than Europe or the United States.
“People who should be protected as refugees are not protected in Japan,” said Michihiro Ishibashi of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP). “We aim to create a desirable system that is not embarrassing among the international community.”
The opposition parties also submitted a bill to mandate court permission for the detention of foreigners illegally staying in Japan.
The country began reviewing its detention rules following the death in June 2019 of a Nigerian man in his 40s, who went on a hunger strike to protest his prolonged detention at an immigration center in Nagasaki Prefecture.
As of January 2020, around 82,000 foreigners were believed to be illegally overstaying in Japan. Some 10,000 repatriate annually after receiving deportation orders but about 3,000 stay in the country, making repeated applications to be recognized as refugees. Deportation procedures are automatically halted for asylum-seekers.
The bill approved Friday limits the number of times deportation procedures can be halted due to refugee status applications to two. It also enables authorities to order those facing deportation to apply for passports for their repatriation and impose penalties for noncompliance.
Those who voluntarily repatriate at their own expense could return to Japan in principle after one year, instead of the current five years.
The legislation also includes provision to allow for forced medical treatment for detainees at immigration centers to prevent future deaths from hunger strikes.
Amnesty International Japan said in a statement that it had “strong concern” about the bill since it falls short of international human rights standards.
The organization said the bill also violates the principle of nonrefoulement, and that it continues to maintain detention as a routine approach in principle instead of it being an exception or a last resort.
The rights body also pointed out that the bill does not set a limit to the period of detention, which is something that has been criticized by U.N. agencies on several occasions.
The number of foreigners who cite refugee status applications or the existence of family members who live in Japan as reasons for refusing to follow deportation orders has been on the rise.
As of late 2019, the number of noncompliant foreign nationals detained at 17 immigration centers across Japan for six months or longer stood at 462, up from 290 at the end of 2014.
The figure fell to 232 in June last year, as authorities increased its use of provisional release to prevent clusters of COVID-19 infections at detention facilities.
Among those foreign detainees, the number of people staying at immigration centers for three years or longer had risen from four at the end of 2014 to 63 by late 2019.
In 2019, Japan granted refugee status to 44 people and allowed 37 people to reside in the nation without guaranteeing such status. The country received 10,375 applications that year.
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