Japan enacted an immigration law on Friday allowing the government to deport failed asylum seekers, despite pushback from opposition parties and rights groups.
Until the revised legislation was passed, applicants could stay in Japan during the decision process, regardless of the number of attempts they made to secure refugee status.
Now they can be deported after three rejections.
The revised law will “protect those who must be protected while strictly dealing with people who have violated rules”, Justice Minister Ken Saito has said.
“There are many people who misuse the application system to avoid deportation,” even if they are not fleeing danger or persecution, according to Saito.
Last year, Japan accepted just 202 refugees out of some 12,500 applicants, and separately allowed 1,760 people to remain in the country due to “humanitarian considerations”.
It has also accepted more than 2,400 evacuees from Ukraine under a different framework.
Activists staged rallies against the revised law, but a protest from the opposition bloc in parliament was voted down by the ruling coalition, which holds a commanding majority.
A ruckus broke out in parliament on Thursday when opposition lawmakers accosted the chairman of a committee discussing the bill, trying to block a vote on the changes.
“It is intolerable to deport people, even if they have criminal records, to countries that may violate their human rights” and where “their life and freedom would be in danger”, the Tokyo Bar Association said this week.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party says the revisions will bring better access to medical care and accommodation options for people whose asylum applications are pending.
Japan’s immigration detention conditions have been under scrutiny since the 2021 death of Wishma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman.
Sandamali was not an asylum seeker but had been held for overstaying her visa after seeking police protection, reportedly to escape an abusive relationship.
Her family are seeking compensation of more than $1 million from the government over her death.
Sandamali reportedly complained repeatedly of stomach pain and other symptoms, and campaigners allege she received inadequate medical care.
Controversy and political pressure over the incident led ruling lawmakers to drop a push to enact similar legal changes to immigration rules two years ago.
Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer for Sandamali’s family, told AFP on Thursday that the revised bill was “equivalent to having a button to execute those who seek refuge by deporting them”.
“Japan’s refugee recognition system is not working,” he said, with officials turning down applications quickly, sometimes without face-to-face interviews.
Amnesty International also said in March that Japan should scrap the proposed revision to immigration laws, calling the country’s detention policies “harsh” and “repressive”.