Essex network plays part in Japanese immigration debate

  • Date

    Fri 16 Jul 21

The global influence of our School of Law and Human Rights Centre has been further illustrated by a challenge to new immigration legislation in Japan.

A high-profile debate, on Japan’s immigration and asylum policies, has demonstrated the influence of Essex experts around the world.

Japan’s approach to immigration, which includes the prolonged detention of asylum seekers, has been widely criticised in recent years.

A series of recent tragedies, including the deaths in detention of a number of foreign nationals, have piled pressure on the Japanese Government for reform.

Yet their proposed amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, published in February, have proven highly controversial.

Dr Sanae Fujita, a Fellow in the School of Law, sought to raise awareness of this amendment bill internationally, arguing that it conflicts with Japan’s obligations under international human rights law.

Dr Fujita said: “This Bill was an opportunity for the Japanese Government to introduce positive reform of the asylum process and meet its international obligations. Instead, the proposed legislation breaches many human rights standards including the principle of non-refoulement, which offers protection to those seeking asylum against being returned to countries where they may face harm.”

Dr Fujita has been working with a group of Japanese lawyers opposed to the Bill. Her previous experience, opposing Japan’s 2013 Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, led her to advise the group to write to a number of United Nations Special Rapporteurs, highlighting their concerns.

Dr Fujita said: “Although a long-established member of the Human Rights Council, Japan has managed, on a number of occasions in recent years, to avoid international scrutiny. This can sometimes be attributed to the language barrier, but Japan has made clear commitments and it is entirely appropriate for individuals, academics, or civil society groups to ask the appropriate Special Rapporteurs to intervene.”

Three Special Rapporteurs and Elina Steinerte, Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, then wrote to the Japanese Government. Their letter was raised in the Japanese Parliament, the National Diet.

Following publication of this letter, the Japanese lawyers, including Dr Fujita, held a press conference with Amnesty International Japan and Human Rights Now and Dr Fujita was interviewed for an article in the The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, where she urged the Japanese Government to engage constructively with international experts.

In April, she published a video explaining the authority of Special Rapporteurs to a Japanese audience – the contents of this video and other articles by Dr Fujita were quoted in a parliamentary question. In early May, Dr Fujita was among the proposers of an open letter, signed by 124 legal scholars, urging the Japanese Government to take note of the Special Rapporteurs’ letter.

The Japanese Government eventually opted to withdraw the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act on 18 May, though it may re-introduce it in the next parliamentary session.

Dr Fujita said: “While I have specific concerns about the amendment bill, the problems with the Japanese approach are not new.

“In contrast to other countries, in Japan the immigration process is managed solely by the Government’s Immigration Services Agency, without the involvement of the courts. This lack of judicial review has resulted in what some have called a ‘black box’ process, with no oversight. This approach lacks transparency and accountability.”

Dr Fujita’s approach highlights the Human Rights Centre’s international network. The Japanese lawyers that worked with Dr Fujita included Tomoko Uraki, who studied at Essex under a partnership established by Dr Fujita with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA).

The Special Rapporteurs contacted by the group included Dr Ahmed Shaheed, a colleague of Dr Fujita at our School of Law.

Dr Ahmed Shaheed said: “While the withdrawal of the controversial bill should be greeted as a positive step by the Japanese government, this episode again highlights the importance of advocacy by human rights defenders in achieving positive outcomes. I applaud Dr Fujita’s remarkable leadership in this advocacy campaign, combining her passion for promoting human rights in Japan and her formidable expertise in human rights advocacy.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that, in 2019, Japan received 10,375 applications for asylum, but only recognised 44 applicants as refugees, with a further 37 permitted to stay in Japan with humanitarian status. UNHCR also estimated around 29,000 pending asylum applications in Japan as of the end of 2019.

In her work, Dr Fujita contrasted the Japanese approach to the UN procedures with that of other countries, who have sought to incorporate the recommendations of Special Rapporteurs or even involve them in the drafting of new legislation.

Dr Fujita said: “The United Nations relies on constructive dialogue and I wanted to show the Japanese people that their government’s policy of rejecting the communication from these experts was not the norm. I wanted to break that bad habit.”

The Japanese Government responded to the Special Rapporteurs’ letter on 17 June.

Dr Fujita is currently working on a paperback book, aimed at a general audience in Japan, explaining human rights.