Protesters Hold Demo Against Japan’s New Refugee Law Reforms

Protesters Hold Demo Against Japan’s New Refugee Law Reforms

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Refugees walking
Picture: rexandpan / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Refugees and their advocates say a revision to Japan's immigration law risks repeating recent high-profile tragedies.

A set of reforms to Japan’s refugee law was ostensibly meant to help protect people seeking protection in the country. However, refugees and refugee advocates say the new law is still unjust – and risks repeating high-profile tragedies that have seen detainees die in custody.

Japan’s poor record with refugees

While Japan does accept refugees, it does so at a very low rate. In 2021, according to statistics from the United Nations Commissions on Human Rights, Japan accepted only 0.7% of the refugees who applied for status. Granted, that’s higher than its 0.3% acceptance rate in 2017. But it’s still well below even France’s paltry rate of 17.5%. By contrast, the US accepted 32.2% of applicants, while Canada and the United Kingdom accepted over 60%.

Japan refugee acceptance rates compared with other countries
Source: Japan Association for Refugees; data from the UNCHR

One issue is that the Japan Immigration Bureau has strict guidelines that require refugees prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they face persecution if they return home. These guidelines came under fire recently in a case involving a lesbian Ugandan woman who fled her country’s strict anti-LGBTQ laws. Immigration denied her petition twice because she couldn’t “prove” that the Ugandan police had tortured her.

A court in Osaka ultimately granted the woman status. The Immigration Bureau opted not to appeal, setting a precedent that could make it easier for people to achieve refugee status in Japan going forward.

A related issue is the treatment refugees. People who are denied status are held in an immigration facility, sometimes for months and sometimes in brutal conditions. 33-year-old Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali died in custody at a detention facility in Nagoya in 2021. Video obtained and released by her family show Wishma begging for help as the staff ignored her pleas. Authorities detained Wishma in 2020 for overstaying her student visa.

“It’s not that I won’t go home – I can’t go home”

Osaka Regional Immigration Services Bureau
Picture: nesthesia / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

On its surface, the revision to Japan’s immigration law is supposed to address these concerns. The crux of the law is that the government will now no longer forcefully repatriate – and thus forcefully detain – people if Immigration denies their refugee status. This gives people leeway to live in Japan provisionally pending an appeal.

However, the revision also states that, if a refugee applicant has been denied status three or more times and they cannot show an “appropriate reason” why they should be granted status, they can be repatriated. Moreover, the law proscribes additional punishments for people who “resist” their forced deportation in transit.


The revision was originally proposed several years ago but dropped amidst the controversy surrounding Wishma’s death. In response to its passage, a group of demonstrators gathered in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward on Saurday May 7th to speak out against it.

A Rohinygan woman from Myanmar whose third petition was denied last month spoke at the event, telling those gathered, “I came to this country because me and my family were in danger….It’s not that I won’t go home, it’s that I can’t.” The Rohingya are a stateless Islamic minority in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Wishma’s sister also spoke at the demonstration. “My family and I can’t accept this revision to the bill until the Diet recognizes my sister’s death and immigration takes responsibility.”

Lawyer Komai Chie told the crowd, “It’s clear Japan doesn’t protect refugees as refugees….If Immigration had protected Wishma’s human rights, she’d never have died. I don’t want her tragedy to repeat itself.”

Japan’s Schindler: How Sugihara Chiune Saved Thousands Of Jewish Refugees


「仲間を殺すな」「改悪ではなく在留資格を」。入管法改正案に反対のデモ. Huffington Post JP

難民認定数の各国比較(2021年). Japan Association for Refugees

Video of Sri Lankan who died in detention in Japan shown to public. Kyodo News

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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