After fierce debate and numerous setbacks, Japan enacted on Friday controversial amendments to the immigration and refugee law enabling the government to deport repeat refugee applicants back to their countries of origin.
But while the government has sought to assure its critics that it will "respond appropriately" to refugee cases that it sees, its ability to ensure the safety of the rising number of vulnerable people worldwide is under serious doubt at a time when it has given itself greater powers over them.
Naoko Hashimoto, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University, told before the House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee in April that "if the bill passes as it is, it will be the equivalent of indirectly pressing a button to execute innocent people."
At the center of the revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act is an effective limit on the number of times people can apply with the country for refugee recognition. Anyone making three or more attempts will now be eligible for deportation.
The harsher measures come as the global refugee situation has worsened worldwide, with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees saying in 2022 that the number of forcibly displaced people globally had exceeded 100 million for the first time.
Justice Minister Ken Saito says the changes, which follow a failed attempt to revise the law in 2021, were a "matter of urgency" because current legislation protects individuals who have committed serious crimes such as murder from deportation if they are applying for refugee status.
According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, 4,233 foreign nationals have refused to comply with deportation orders as of the end of 2022.
Among them are a considerable number who have not been approved for refugee status despite maintaining they would be subject to mortal danger if returned to their countries.
For Japan, refugee acceptance first began in 1981, the same year it acceded to the U.N.'s 1951 Refugee Convention.
The debate over the country's reluctant approach to refugees was subsequently ignited by a 2002 case of a family of five who escaped North Korea and attempted to enter the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, northern China.
Footage of them being dragged out of the consulate by Chinese police caused a stir that led to a revision of the refugee law in 2005.
Among its changes, it introduced immunity to deportation for refugee status applicants and established the refugee examination counselors system that has external experts judge whether to approve cases.
In 2010, the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan's government changed the rules further to allow prospective refugees to sustain themselves through work six months after submitting an application.
What followed was a sharp rise in submissions, and by 2017 a record 19,629 refugee applications were made. Amid suspicions many were making false applications to evade deportation and obtain permission to work, the agency tightened the rules in 2018 and began pursuing limits to immunity from forcible removal.
Despite the toughening measures, a senior official at the agency maintained that it does "provide relief to those foreign nationals who genuinely need it."
But between 2001 and 2020, Japan approved an average of less than 1 percent of applications, a significantly lower proportion than many other countries. In 2022, it awarded a record 202 people including 147 Afghans refugee status.
By contrast, the Japan Association for Refugees estimates that in 2021, Germany gave around 39,000 people, or 25.9 percent, of applicants refugee status, while in the same year, the United States granted it to some 20,000 people, or 32.2 percent of applicants.
Distrust about how the system is managed in Japan has also been fanned by revelations during parliamentary debates that judgments on whether to grant the status are concentrated among a few specific examination counselors.
A number of judicial decisions, too, have exposed the haphazard way that Japan awards refugee certification.
In March, the Osaka District Court ordered the government to grant refugee status to a Ugandan woman in her 30s who said she feared persecution over the country's harsh approach to LGBT people.
The woman had appealed her case after the counselor assigned to her case did not ask her to provide information on her circumstances in a face-to-face meeting.
The Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees says it is aware of more than 50 successful court appeals to revoke refugee status rejections by the agency.
The network's representative Shogo Watanabe says the numbers show that people who should be recognized as refugees are not. The revised law, he said, "makes extremely apparent that management of the immigration agency is given greater precedence than human rights."
"A system of approvals that is independent of the agency must be established to serve as a last resort for refugees."