UN expresses doubts over Japan's immigration law reform

Japanese politicians are debating amendments to the country's immigration law in an attempt to address the long-term detention of some foreigners. But the UN has already come out against the proposals, saying they would do little to change the situation.

One expert says the issue should be discussed not as a policy matter, but rather as one that has to do with the views on foreigners that undergird Japanese society as a whole.

"My daughter was a kind person who devoted herself to other people."

The mother of Wishma, a Sri Lankan woman who died at an immigration facility in Nagoya, held an online news conference on April 16. She called on the Japanese government and immigration officials to publish a report detailing what happened to her daughter.

Wishma came to Japan from Sri Lanka four years ago. She attended a Japanese language school but had to quit once she could no longer afford tuition, and lost her student status. After overstaying her visa, she was detained for six months. While in custody, she became seriously ill and died. Wishma was 33 years old.

Washima's family online news conference
Wishma's mother and two sisters held an online news conference on April 16.

Japan's Immigration Services Agency issues deportation orders to most foreigners who stay in the country without residence status. In close to 90 percent of these cases, the person subject to the order complies and leaves the country. But those who do not — including asylum seekers — are taken into custody. The government does not place a limit on these detentions, which often last for months or even years.

A draft revision of the immigration law would allow foreigners who have received deportation orders to stay with family members or supporters until they leave the country if they meet certain conditions.

But the United Nations Human Rights Council on Arbitrary Detention and three other UN mandates have come out against the proposal. They argue that the basic policy of using detention to deport has not changed and the new measure could be applied only in exceptional cases and under the discretion of immigration authorities. They say the practice of detaining migrants for limitless periods without judicial review will continue.

The UN also says a revision that would allow authorities to forcibly repatriate those who have applied for refugee status three or more times could be a violation of international law. But Japanese Justice Minister Kamikawa Yoko says these criticisms are misplaced.

"The draft revision was studied by a panel of experts, including international law scholars, lawyers and NGO officials. If the UN panel had a chance to hear explanations by the Japanese government in advance, it would have correctly understood the background, content and appropriateness of the revision," she says.

Professor Abe Kohki of Meiji Gakuin University, an expert on international law, says it will be difficult to reconcile the opposing views of the UN and the Japanese government as long as Tokyo's priority remains the strict maintenance of national borders.

"That's what leads Japan's government to deport foreigners it does not deem qualified to stay," Abe says. "Because of that, it sets the bar for whose rights should be protected very low. The UN, on the other hand, believes in protecting the rights of all human beings, regardless of their residence status and how important a country sees border control."

Wishma, a 33-year-old woman from Sri Lanka, died last month while in custody at an immigration facility in Nagoya City, central Japan.

In recent years, faced with labor shortages, Japan has said it wants to be more open to ideas of diversity and multiculturalism in society

But Abe says it is noticeable that this is only happening on the government's own terms.

"It's important for the Japanese government to create a society in which people coexist with foreigners in a way that is managed by the state," he says. "And I think the government is saying that this policy has not been recognized by the UN."

There is an obvious gap between the UN's concerns for human rights and Japan's national prerogative, but to take its place in the international community, Japan will have to address this gap. Abe says if the country wants to truly engage in a meaningful amendment of the law, it will need to take a harder look at how it views foreigners.

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