The Cabinet on Feb. 19 approved legislation that immigration officials say will shorten overstayers’ time in detention facilities, but human rights activists warn that the bill could worsen the situation for asylum seekers.
The legislation to be submitted to the Diet is designed to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law.
A key component addresses the problem facing visa overstayers who often spend years in detention facilities while waiting for decisions on their refugee status applications.
The revision would allow these people to apply only twice for refugee status, meaning that applicants will likely be deported quickly unless they have a legitimate reason for staying in Japan.
Those who agree to quick deportation would be able to return to Japan after a year. Currently, deportees must wait five years before being allowed to re-enter Japan.
Another change would allow an authorized individual or organization to take supervisory responsibility of would-be deportees so that they can live outside of immigration facilities before they are sent to their home countries.
The program would cover individuals who are considered at low risk of fleeing. The supervisory person or organization would have to provide periodic reports to authorities about the individual’s progress.
However, those who flee such living conditions would face a maximum prison sentence of one year, a maximum fine of 200,000 yen ($1,900) or a combination of the two penalties.
A new resident status will be established that would allow individuals certified as being unable to return to their homeland due to strife to remain in Japan under the same long-term resident status given to refugees.
However, the proposed changes are of little solace to some foreigners who have not received refugee status and who fear arrest if they return to their native land.
One 41-year-old Kurdish man from Turkey lives in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, with his wife and three children.
The man has applied for refugee status three times in the past but has never been approved. Deportation orders have been issued for all five family members, including his children who attend elementary, junior high and senior high school.
The father was involved in activities seeking greater rights for Kurds, and he fears that he will be locked up if he returns to Turkey.
He first arrived in Japan in 2004 on a tourist visa. Two years later, his wife and then 1-year-old son came to Japan. His two other sons were born in Japan, but have no citizenship, and they only speak Japanese.
The entire family is now on temporary release from detention, which means they cannot work or join the national health insurance program.
“When I think about the future, I am full of worries,” the man said. “I have no idea how to raise my children.”
The man has submitted a fourth application for refugee status. Under the proposed legislative change, he could be deported even while the application is still being processed. If he refuses to return to Turkey, he might face criminal penalties in Japan.
The man faces a high hurdle because Japan has a woefully low rate of approving refugees. In 2019, only 44 of 10,375 applications were approved, a rate of 0.4 percent.
Officials at the Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization, raised serious concerns about the proposed revision, which comes without any improvement in the refugee recognition system.
They also point out that the proposed legislation includes no maximum limit on detention periods and no avenue for taking up cases in the judicial system.
“We cannot expect a drastic improvement in the situation of long-term detentions,” one official said.
(Kazuya Ito contributed to this article.)