Coronavirus Crisis Sheds Light On The Struggle Of Asylum-Seekers In Japan

Since 2016, Japan has received over 10,000 asylum applications a year, of which only a few dozen are accepted. Despite having a population of 126 million, the number of refugees it welcomed in 2019 was just 40, a tiny fraction of the number accepted by smaller countries such as Canada (over 14,000), Germany (9,600), and Sweden (5,400). These low numbers mean that asylum-seekers are a largely invisible community in Japan, with the total number estimated to be around 1500 by Nikkei Asian Review.

The asylum process is fraught with anxiety due to its opaque and unaccommodating nature. For example, asylum-seekers are neither allowed to work nor to receive public funds, leaving them reliant on family members or private aid from civil society groups. “Civil society groups are doing a lot of work, but their resources are spent on the everyday needs of the refugees because government support for refugees is so low”, explained an employee of Welgee, a refugee-employment focused non-profit, to Nikkei. Asylum-seekers’ stress is compounded by the requirement to report to the immigration bureau every two months to renew their provisional release. One Nigerian asylum-seeker, Gabriel, reported being made homeless due to not being allowed to work when on provisional release. Twice his renewal was rejected, forcing him to spend months in a detention centre without any notice.

The Mainichi Shimbun reports a troubling trend of long-term detentions and re-detention after release becoming more common. Following a wave of hunger strikes at Ushiku detention centre in mid-2019, a 50-year old Iranian man named Safari Heydar was released after striking, only to be told two weeks later that he would be returning to the same detention centre. Attorney Takeshi Ohashi is quoted as saying, “this is an abnormal situation in which detention periods of three years or longer is not much of an anomaly anymore …detention is not criminal punishment, but rather a measure to prevent escape. I believe that using that as a means to drive people into a corner, so they have no other choice but to be repatriated is a type of torture.” Former immigration official Yoichi Kinoshita criticizes the lack of transparency over decision-making, as well as the policy of long-term detentions for having little success in promoting deportations, and serving only to harden asylum-seekers’ attitudes.

This opacity has been particularly troubling in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Japan Times reports of the anxiety faced by detainees at Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, who have no access to computers or phones and are given little information by authorities. Detainees fear the consequences of an outbreak in the centre, where the cramped and crowded living conditions and poor circulation mean that the virus would quickly spread.

However, people continued to be transferred to the facility from outside until early April, despite the risk of them carrying the disease. Detainees suspect there may already have been cases, but the bureau would not confirm to the Japan Times whether any COVID-19 infections had been discovered. There are not adequate supplies of masks or hand sanitizer for detainees, leaving them vulnerable to infection. Many have pleaded to be released due to the exceptional circumstances caused by the virus, but so far, the numbers released have been few. Even those released may face homelessness without an income or support, and most lack health insurance, leaving them unable to pay for testing or treatment.

The current asylum system in Japan creates needless uncertainty in people’s lives and leaves them little opportunity to better their circumstances, nor to contribute to society by finding work. The detention system is ineffective at encouraging deportation and seems more geared towards intimidating refugees than making use of their abilities. The human cost of this system is amplified during the current pandemic, which has the potential to cause the deaths of many people in detention who have committed no crime. Japan’s immigration officials should act urgently to protect the health of all asylum-seekers in detention.