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In early 2021, 33-year-old Sri Lankan student Wishma Sandamali died while in a Japanese detention center. Sandamali, who came to Japan in 2017, had sought protection from domestic violence, only to be arrested and incarcerated for overstaying her student visa.

While in the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau, a stress-induced stomach condition contributed to her losing 44 pounds. Sandamali was vomiting blood before she died, reportedly of emaciation.

Her tragic ending wasn’t inevitable; medical professionals had advised granting her provisional release to relieve her stress. But immigration authorities ignored these pleas, denying her medical care.

In response, small numbers of Japanese took to the streets of Tokyo and Osaka to demonstrate against her treatment and a petition signed by some 93,000 people demanded transparency on the conditions that led to her death. Recently released footage clearly showed Sandamali’s physical decline and the authorities’ failure to seek treatment, even as she became unresponsive.

Punitive approaches to managing immigration are damning from a human rights standpoint. But in Japan in particular, criminalizing asylum seekers and stigmatizing immigration is also contributing to an existential crisis comprising a fast-aging population, declining fertility and a shrinking economy.

Japan’s asylum problem

Since the end of World War II, when Japan shifted from being a multiethnic empire to a nation-state with a supposedly homogeneous population, foreigners have been subject to disciplinary regimes of persecution, deportation and incarceration.

In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Japanese police targeted Japan’s long-term resident Koreans, who numbered 650,000 at the time. Tokyo branded Koreans unassimilable. Ethnic Korean schools were forcibly shuttered, Korean men and women were subjected to stop-and-search practices and the government pressed Korean families to self-deport for North Korea. Many who left for Kim Il Sung’s DPRK were never heard from again.

Sandamali’s death, which made her the 18th foreigner to die in Japanese immigration detention since 2007, continues a historical pattern of institutionalized malign neglect toward unwanted foreigners. Tokyo’s immigration policies are now characterized by the prolonged detention of asylum seekers (over a year in many cases) and woefully low asylum acceptance rates (0.4% of claims in 2019).

In 2019, Japan contributed more than $125 million to the UNHCR — the U.N. agency tasked with protecting refugees — putting it among the top five donors in the world. But its checkbook humanitarianism is at odds with the reality that Japan rarely accepts asylum requests.

In 2017, 19,000 individuals requested asylum in Japan, fleeing persecution, conflict and hunger in places such as Myanmar, Syria and Sri Lanka. Yet Tokyo granted refugee status to only 20 applicants. The Japanese public appears largely to support a tough approach to refugees, with only 18% of respondents to an immigration and refugees survey agreeing that refugees could successfully integrate into their country.

In short, Japan is one of the world’s least friendly nations for asylum seekers. And this is despite a demographic crisis that is already impacting the country’s social and economic realities.

Japan’s demographic time bomb

Japan is experiencing a crisis. With a median age of 48.4 years, its population is the oldest in the world. In stores across the country, adult diapers now outsell baby diapers by 2.5 times.

It’s also a shrinking country, with its population of 127 million expected to contract by over a quarter by 2065.

These demographic shifts will have dramatic social and economic impacts. Fewer Japanese will be able and willing to work. Those who continue in the workforce will likely be older, less productive and will hold tight to jobs that might otherwise be yielded to younger workers.

An aging population also means a larger percentage of society dependent on elder care. Specialized geriatric nursing is costly. Japan is already dependent on migrant workers to staff its agricultural, manufacturing and caregiving sectors — jobs unappealing to young Japanese. As the need for healthcare grows, so will the demand for low and semiskilled caregivers, medical technicians and nurses. Inevitably, the demand for workers to fill undesirable jobs will need to be met by increasing migrant labor.

So, how long can Japan hold off providing the solution to its demographic crisis?

Certainly, Tokyo doesn’t yet appear ready to resort to migrant workers at the level required to make a difference to the lives of elderly Japanese. Policymakers are pursuing alternatives that include encouraging women to enter the workforce in greater numbers. It’s possible that more women working jobs previously dominated by men will boost tax income and encourage economic growth. But it’s also possible that more women in breadwinning roles may further contribute to the country’s low fertility rate and long-term economic decline.

Another possible solution is the introduction of robot workers to do basic caregiving roles for geriatric patients. But while early studies report robots may relieve some loneliness in older adults, they are not designed to replace human carers who are capable of a range of important caregiving tasks besides basic entertainment.

Which takes us full circle. Without distinct policy level changes, Japan’s super-aging society is likely to continue its economic decline and demographic contraction. What this means for the future of the country is yet to be seen, but experts warn of a ticking time bomb counting down to financial collapse.

How these demographic shifts will impact national security is also unclear, with some predicting a “security renaissance,” comprising a more robust, capable military. Others note that a shrinking and aging populous will inevitably reshape security strategies; Tokyo has missed its military recruiting targets every year since 2014.

The contradictions are laid bare when, for example, Tokyo announces measures designed to attract young, low and semiskilled workers to the agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors in rural Japan. At the same time, men and women like Wishma Sandamali are subject to treatment more suited to criminals than someone trying to escape an abusive relationship.

Never again?

Ultimately, future policy solutions will need to encourage a shift in social attitudes toward immigration. Whether it’s international students, low skilled labor migrants, or asylum seekers, the long-term detention of foreign nationals facing deportation should not be acceptable.

On Dec. 5, the day that would have been Sandamali’s birthday, mourners gathered at Myotsuji Temple in Aichi Prefecture to celebrate her life. Holding Sandamali’s remains, her sister Poornima lamented, “If she were alive, today would have been a happy and enjoyable day. I’d like for something like this to never happen again.”

Migrants’ human rights must be protected and their deaths in state care must not be considered business as usual. But with asylum applications likely to rise as the pandemic recedes — and there being no firm changes on the horizon with regard to Japanese refugee policy — there’s no guarantee that Sandamali’s will be the last death in custody.

Dr. Markus Bell is a research fellow at La Trobe University, Australia. He is the author of “Outsiders: Memories of Migration to and from North Korea.” © 2022, The Diplomat

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