Hunger strike in Japan immigration center highlights restrictive refugee policies

Immigration queue, Narita Airport, Japan (Credit: Andrea Barisani / Flickr)

Dozens of detained asylum seekers and migrant workers at a Japanese immigration center are on a hunger strike to protest repeated and prolonged detentions. The rare protest action has called attention once again to Japan’s unusually strict immigration policies, despite being one of the world’s most generous aid donors.

More than 20 detainees launched the hunger strike on Tuesday at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, and more than a dozen others joined yesterday, according to Reuters.

Although the bureau did not confirm that asylum seekers are held at that center, a rights group called Provisional Release Association in Japan reported on its blog that asylum seekers and migrant workers are among the strike participants, who hail from 12 countries including China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The center currently holds about 580 detainees, Justice Ministry official Shigeki Otsuki told Reuters.

Officials told Agence France-Presse that they assume the hunger strike is to protest conditions at the detainment center and applications for provisional release. However, according to the demands published on the blog, the participants are protesting the repeated and prolonged detainment, forced and unsafe deportations and unfair conditions for provisional release such as restricted movement.

“The hunger strike will continue unabated until our human rights concerns listed above are properly addressed,” the letter to the immigration director said. “Thank you for your understanding.”

The strike, though rare, follows two other hunger strikes last year over poor medical treatment at a detention center in Osaka. After recent reports revealed that Japan only accepted 28 asylum seekers in 2016 out of a record 10,901 applications, observers are once again calling out Japan’s reluctance to take in foreigners.

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Officials defended the shockingly low number, saying that applicants were mainly from Asian countries who wanted to come to Japan purely for economic reasons. However, Japan’s tough immigration restrictions are nothing new.

On a policy level, the concern is national security, but Japan has also long been known to harbor deep pride in its cultural and ethnic homogeneity. While other countries in the region have begun to open their borders to compensate for dwindling and aging workforces, so far that has not been reason enough for Japan.

As one of richest countries in the world, Japan’s unwillingness to accept asylum seekers amid a global refugee crisis also seems to stand in contrast to its status as the world’s fourth largest aid donor – behind the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

The country proudly publicizes the many contributions it makes to relief and development efforts around the world. But even on this front, Japan only recently began to take a more “hands on” approach.

“The size of aid itself doesn’t necessarily equate presence in the donor community … and I think during the Millennium Development Goals period [from 2000 to 2015], Japan was very, very invisible,” Takumo Yamada, senior consultant at Deloitte Tohmatsu and former senior policy adviser at Oxfam, told Humanosphere.

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“Japan didn’t spend a lot of resources into leading the debate,” he said. “They used to think that aid was something that you give to developing country governments in a bilateral manner. As long as you have people on the ground you’re being a donor.”

Only after 2008 when Japan began to host the G-8 summit did Yamada see a noticeable change. However, that was also around the time the financial crisis hit, and Western governments began to elect more conservative leaders, who focused more on growth-led development and security rather than human development and rights. For Japan, it was a “convenient shift” toward policies Japan has always strongly espoused, Yamada said.

Now, under President Shinzo Abe, aid is enjoying a very high political priority as a major foreign policy tool to build economic and military alliances.

However, “if aid follows a very naked self-interest, then it doesn’t really help the development of the recipient countries,” Yamada said.

That self-interest-driven philosophy of foreign aid also seems to have justified a closed policy toward refugees backed by the “xenophobic nature of the Justice Ministry,” as Yamada called it.

“We need change,” a hunger striker told Reuters. “We need to stop this system.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.