Japan's House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a controversial bill that would amend an immigration law to enable authorities to deport individuals who repeatedly apply for refugee status.

The passage by the powerful lower chamber came despite strong opposition from supporters of asylum seekers who claim that the envisioned revisions could result in the return of people at risk of persecution in their home countries. The bill is now set to be debated in the House of Councillors.

Japan currently cannot deport foreign nationals to their home countries while their refugee status applications are pending and the government suspects many have abused the system by applying multiple times on the same grounds to remain in the country.

By amending the immigration law, the government led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida aims to end the extended detention in immigration facilities of foreign nationals who do not comply with deportation orders issued for overstaying and other reasons.

The House of Representatives passes a bill to amend an immigration law to enable authorities to deport individuals who repeatedly apply for refugeee status, during a plenary session in Tokyo on May 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

The bill would allow the government to repatriate those who fail to show why they should be granted refugee status when applying for the third time or later.

The planned amendment also includes granting individuals from conflict-affected regions quasi-refugee status to allow them to remain in Japan even if they do not meet the criteria for refugees.

As part of efforts to prevent long-term detention, the government would allow individuals applying for refugee status to live outside immigration facilities under the supervision of their supporters.

During the deliberations of the lower house committee on judicial affairs, the leading opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan called for the establishment of a third-party body to screen the refugee recognition process, which is currently conducted by the immigration authorities, to ensure the fairness of the procedure.

But the ruling bloc, led by Kishida's Liberal Democratic Party, rejected the request and only introduced minor changes to the bill, including training immigration officials on how to screen asylum seekers, as proposed by the opposition Japan Innovation Party.

In 2021, the government shelved an amendment bill for the immigration law amid a growing backlash after a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman died while being held at an immigration facility in Nagoya, central Japan, that year.

She had been complaining of stomach pain and other symptoms for a few months and eventually died due to a lack of necessary medical care. Her family maintains she was illegally detained and has filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government.

Earlier this year, the government submitted to parliament the latest bill, which largely retains the contents of the one that was previously withdrawn.

In 2022, Japan gave refugee status to 202 people, a record high since it began granting it in 1982. But the number lags behind the figures for European countries, where refugee and asylum claims are often accepted in their tens of thousands annually, as well as the United States.

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