Beyond "seclusionist" Japan: evaluating the Free Afghans/Refugee law reform campaign after September 11.

Author:Kaneko, Mai
Position:Includes abstract in French


Following the events of September 11, Japan renewed its stance against terrorism and aggressively stepped up regulations against aliens including asylum seekers. Responding to the post-September 11 detention of Afghan asylum seekers, citizens of all walks of life joined forces. The Free Afghan Refugees movement not only succeeded in releasing detainees, but also broke new ground by pushing for reform of the Japanese asylum system for the first time in the twenty-one years since the Refugee Recognition Act was enacted. The success and propagation of their activism is a reflection of the maturity attained by the refugee rights movement in Japan, and the increased awareness among citizens about world issues. On an unprecedented scale, citizens are questioning the government's efforts to maintain a homogeneous social order.


A la suite des attentats du 11 septembre, le Japon a reitere sa position contre le terrorisme et a vigoureusement renforce ses reglements contre les etrangers, y compris les demandeurs d'asile. Cependant, lorsque des demandeurs d'asile afghans ont ete detenus apres le 11 septembre, des citoyens provenant de routes les couches sociales ont fait cause commune. Le mouvement > (>) reussit non seulement obtenir la liberation des detenus, mais innova aussi en reclamant la reforme du systeme d'asile japonais pour la premiere fois depuis les 21 armies d'existence de la Loi sur la reconnaissance des refugies (>). Le succes et la propagation du militantisme attestent du degre de maturite atteint par le mouvement pour les droits des refugies au Japon et de la sensibilisation accrue des citoyens envers les grandes questions mondiales. Comme jamais auparavant, les citoyens remettent en question les efforts du gouvernement pour preserver un ordre social homogene.

Ever since I was a kid, I'd always imagined that Japan was the most peaceful country in the world ... I was taught that after the Hiroshima bombing, Japanese people came to love peace. Ever since I was born I've seen nothing but war. I grew up seeing people being killed right in front of me.... (1) I thought if I came to Japan, I would be safe and would be able to make a future for myself. But instead, as soon as I arrived here I was detained and treated like a criminal.... All we think about is our family. We don't know where they are, how they are ... whether they are alive or dead ... All we can do while in detention is to keep watching the horrible news on TV about the US bombing our hometown ... We just hope and pray nothing has happened to them. (Afghan detainee, Hazara, male, in his twenties). (2) Right after September 11th, I found out that one of my acquaintances was killed in the World Trade Center. I thought something was wrong with this world and started to become involved in social activism for the first time in my life. That is how I came to know about detained Afghan asylum seekers. Until then, I was just an "ordinary citizen." When I heard the term "refugees," I just imagined these people starving in the refugee camps in Asia and Africa. They are part of something happening far away from me. I would never have thought that there are people who come to Japan seeking "asylum." ... But look at me now, I'm in the middle of the Free Afghan refugee movement ... Why? Because I came to realize that my life, which I take for granted, exists at the expense of these people ... A society not livable for refugees is not livable for us Japanese, either. (Japanese businessman, in his thirties). (3) The first comment was made by an Afghan asylum seeker who was detained by the Japanese immigration bureau for seven months, and the second comment was made by a young Japanese activist who became involved in the movement to free them after September 11. While the plight of detainees languishing in places like Woomera, Australia, has made international headlines since 2001, neither the trauma that these Afghan asylum seekers faced in Japan nor the support they garnered from citizens has been widely recognized. In the early morning hours of October 3, 2001, soon after September 11 and the Bush administration's declaration on war against terrorism, some forty Japanese police and Immigration Bureau officials armed with bullet-proof vests raided the residences of nine Afghan asylum seekers in Chiba, and transported them to the immigration detention facility in Jujo, Tokyo. The police and immigration officials allegedly confiscated computers and cell phones from the residents, and even examined their personal diaries. These asylum seekers, most of them minority Hazaras, (4) were allegedly arrested under suspicion of terrorism, and were detained under poor medical conditions with no prospect of release, and many of them attempted to commit suicide. This provoked widespread criticism among Japanese citizens, and many lawyers, Christian activists, journalists, and young activists became mobilized to found the Network to Free Afghan Refugees (AFNET). (5)

What is most remarkable about this movement is that a considerable number (6) of young and mainstream citizens were involved, many participating in such activism for the first time in their lives. At the same time, their movement, which started out as a campaign against the detention of Afghan asylum seekers, has not only succeeded in securing the release of a number of detainees, but has also evolved into a whole new effort to push for the reformation of the Japanese asylum system itself. The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Bill, (7)--though with many problems--ostensibly advocating the prevention of detention and deportation of asylum seekers is now about to be submitted by the Cabinet to the Diet, the Japanese parliament. Japan, a country that has long practised exclusionary immigration and asylum policy in maintaining its self-proclaimed status as a "homogeneous society," is finally facing major pressure for change by its citizens claiming that only "a society livable for foreigners is livable for all."

In this paper, I will first discuss the pre-September 11 policy on detention of asylum seekers, and how regulations against aliens including asylum seekers were gradually tightened in recent years, followed by the impact of September 11 given the new agenda of countering terrorism, the success of Free Afghans and asylum system reform movement, and finally analyze what factors contributed to the dramatic propagation of the movement after September 11.

Japanese Seclusionist Policy

Japan ratified the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (hereinafter Refugee Convention) (8) and its Protocol (9) in 1981, and enacted the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (hereinafter Immigration Act) (10) shortly afterward. Japan, home country to former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Sadako Ogata, is the second-largest donor to the UNHCR following the U.S., with many of its nationals all over the world devoted to international cooperation on such issues as refugee assistance. However, asylum seekers in Japan have faced severe circumstances. Between 1981 and the end of 2002, twenty-one years since ratification of the Refugee Convention, Japan has only recognized 305 out of a total of 2,782 applicants. In 2001, the year the nine Afghans mentioned above were detained, 353 people applied for refugee status--the highest in nineteen years--with only twenty-six recognized. Most applicants for refugee status were Afghans--almost one hundred--yet only three were recognized). (11) The number of refugees Japan admits every year has been the lowest among all G7 countries. Further, in comparing the numbers of refugees hosted to a number of other variables, Japan is ranked 136th internationally in relation to GDP, 125th in relation to population size, and 90th in relation to geographic size, at the end of 2000). (12) At the same time, even before September 11, refugee advocates have long claimed that the Japanese asylum system itself contains considerable flaws with potentials of serious human rights violations such as detentions of asylum seekers without a time limit and deportations to home countries where there is fear of persecution.

Pre-September 11: Detention of Asylum Seekers

Under Japan's Immigration Act, any alien who arrives without proper documentation, including those who subsequently seek asylum, must be detained. Amnesty International reported in 2002 that a daily average of seven persons are detained at the Landing Prevention Facilities (LPFs) (or "Airport Rest House") in Narita Airport alone. (13) On the other hand, since the Japanese government does not provide any particular visa to refugee applicants, in-country applicants without valid documents at the time of application also face detention and deportation. (Those who do have visas at the time of application for refugee status may have their visas extended during this initial application, but not during appeal. These individuals therefore face detention and deportation). In contrast, in the years before September 11, those without visas at the time of application normally had deportation procedures suspended and were therefore not detained until their initial application was denied. (14)

Once in the immigration detention facilities, detainees may request provisional release to the immigration bureau in exchange for bail provided that there is "no possibility of the detainees' running away," and in light of such factors as detainees' health. However, before September 11, provisional release was usually granted only when the applicant had been detained for several months or close to a year.

These practices have garnered criticisms by the UNHCR, refugee advocates, and lawyers as contradictory to international law and standards, including the Refugee Convention Article 33 (non-refoulement); Article 31, which exempts refugees from punishment due to illegal entry or presence; UNHCR...

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