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Coronavirus Crisis and Refugees in Japan: Change Rules to Save Lives

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Five months into the outbreak, the spread of the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) has continued unabated. Japan has not been spared the ravages of the deadly disease as fatalities climb day by day.

by Urara Furukawa[1]

Edited by Amishi Agrawal and Paul Namkoong

The pandemic (and the response to it, such as movement restrictions) has raised serious concerns about the disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable members of the society, including people with physical and mental disabilities, homeless people, prisoners, low-income children dependent on school meals, and women trapped at home with their abusers. In this context, another ‘at-risk’ group of people – asylum-seekers and refugees – should not be forgotten, since the virus does not discriminate based on legal status or nationality. Everyone has the right to life-saving interventions without exception, as the UN human rights experts recently reiterated jointly.[2]

In 2019, 10,375 asylum applications were made and 44 people were recognized as refugees in Japan, consistent with the numbers in the last several years.[3] In addition, 37 individuals were granted a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, which provides fewer rights and stability than refugee status does. Upon arrival in Japan, many asylum-seekers face the threat of homelessness with no right to work and limited access to public support. In 2017, 362 refugee applicants received financial aid and 25 benefitted shelter from the government, a fraction of the total asylum population.[4] NGOs complement the effort with their emergency accommodation, but the capacity is not enough to meet the overall needs. With meager assistance and no source of regular income, asylum-seekers quickly fall into poverty that may stretch into years. The refugee application process in Japan is lengthy, taking three years on average, and in some instances exceeding ten years.

Washing hands frequently may be a challenge where water is scarce.

Jamaam refugee camp, South Sudan, 2012. Photo by author.

Stigmatization for carrying the virus (real or perceived) impedes timely medical interventions that could save lives.[5] Refugees may be particularly subjected to social prejudice, given that the majority of Japanese people view them with suspicion, according to a recent government poll.[6] Also, foreigners with no legal status may be reluctant to seek medical help due to the lack of health insurance or fear of deportation. The nationalist rhetoric exploiting the health emergency for xenophobic agenda is counterproductive in terms of building trust across the communities, which is essential for the whole-of-society response to combat the pandemic.

The difficult access to information plays a part in their vulnerability too. Compounded by the language barrier and lack of multi-language support, information gaps on life-saving guidance could be a matter of life and death. Confirmed by an NGO that conducted the coronavirus outreach to refugees and asylum-seekers,[7] public announcements on the health updates need to be made available more widely in different languages, utilizing various platforms that are easily accessible by the non-Japanese communities.

Most of all, some 1,200 individuals held in nine immigration detention facilities across the country, almost half of them in the asylum system, require immediate attention for prevention of a disease outbreak.[8] Japan has been repeatedly criticized by the UN for holding these foreigners in administrative detention for a prolonged period with no effective recourse.[9] There have been multiple reports of abuses, denials of medical care, and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions coming from these centers.[10] Hundreds of the detainees have been on hunger strike on and off for months (which have resulted in deaths). Adding their poor physical and mental health to the mix, the detention facilities have all the ingredients for a perfect storm. Currently, it is even more difficult to justify their continued detention, which is supposed to be a preparatory step for removal proceedings, when deportation has been halted due to border closures.[11]

Migrant children learn the importance of brushing teeth at a local kindergarten.

Mae Hong Son, Thailand, 2010. Photo by author.

Have these specific situations of the refugees been adequately factored into the government’s pandemic response and messaging? In April, the immigration authorities announced exceptional measures to extend visas for foreigners in Japan[12] and relax strict requirements for provisional release from immigration detention centers. While they represent an encouraging step forward, Japan should take further actions without delays, drawing from good practices emerging from other countries facing similar challenges. First and foremost, it is important that political leadership sets the overall tone of empathy and inclusiveness in this time of widespread anxiety. For example, Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand urged people to “be kind” to one another[13] and German Chancellor Merkel assured that the relevant updates would be available in different languages.[14] Such language underlines their central message of “We are in this together” and “Every individual counts”.

Moreover, as the pandemic deepens, several countries have taken concrete steps in supporting those in the asylum system or without legal status. Portugal temporarily granted the permanent residence status to all asylum-seekers and migrants pending their application, so that they can access public health service, benefits, and the right to work.[15] Also, the United Kingdom announced the suspension of evicting unsuccessful asylum-seekers from the government accommodation during the lockdown, averting the threat of homelessness that would have impacted 50,000 people.[16] These sensible decisions are welcome in light of the significant transformation of our daily lives caused by border closure, travel restrictions, and shutdowns. If implemented properly, the new rules will not only ensure the health and dignity of the individual refugees and migrants, but also serve the interest of the host country to suppress further transmission.

Japan has been a generous donor for supporting refugees and displaced people around the world. Their continued commitment to the vulnerable displaced population is called for more than ever as the UN issued a funding appeal to assist the world’s poorest countries to fight the pandemic, many of which host a large number of refugees and displaced people.[17] While it is critical to demonstrate a strong gesture of global solidarity, it is equally important not to leave refugees within our borders behind. Similarly, closure of borders should be implemented in such a way that the right to seek asylum is preserved without compromising public health.[18] After all, as UNHCR said, everyday life has come to a standstill for many of us, but wars and persecution have not stopped. To save lives and humanity first – that shall be an overriding principle for future policy decision-making as we brace ourselves for multi-faceted impacts of the pandemic that may be felt for months, if not years to come.


[1] The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

[2] OHCHR, ‘No exceptions with COVID-19: “Everyone has the right to life-saving interventions” – UN experts say’ (26 March 2020).

[3] Annual refugee statistics released by the Ministry of Justice covering 1978-2019, available at (in Japanese) [4] Forum for Refugee Japan, ‘Nanmin Hogo no tameno Zenkokuteki Renkei Kyouryoku Sokushin Houkokusho’ [Report on National-Level Promotion of Coordination and Collaboration for Refugee Protection] (31 March 2019), pp.7-9, available at [5] Sphere has released various guidance notes in this regard, available at [6]“Japanese split on accepting more refugees, 56% call for caution”, The Asahi Shimbun, 20 January 2020. [7] Japan Association for Refugees, ‘Shingata Korona Uirusu no Eikyo kara Nanmin no Kata wo Mamoritsuzuketai – Goshien no Onegai’[Protecting refugees from the impact of the coronavirus – a call for support] (19 March 2020), available at [8] Yuko Osakada, ‘Nyuukan Shuuyou no Genzai’ [Immigration Detention Today], Houritsu Jihou Vol 92, No.2, February 2020. [9] Koichi Kodama, attorney, elaborates Japan’s problematic practice of administrative detention concerning irregular migrants and asylum-seekers and the recommendations from various UN human rights entities in this regard, in his article ‘Shiiteki Koukin to Nyuukan Shuuyou’ [Arbitrary Detention and Immigration Detention], Hougaku Semina, February 2020. [10] For example, see “The Quiet Desperation of Refugees in Japan”, The Diplomat, 23 April 2019. [11] From the perspective of virus containment, it would be morally questionable to implement deportation at this point even if borders were open. [12] “Foreigners in Japan given extra 3 months to renew stay due to coronavirus”, Kyodo News, 3 April 2020. [13] Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s speech on 23 March 2020 to announce the increased alert level of COVID-19. The transcript available at [14] An address to the nation by Federal Chancellor Merkel, delivered on 19 March 2020. The transcript available at [15] “Coronavirus: Portugal to treat migrants as residents during pandemic”, The Independent, 28 March 2020. [16] “Home Office to hold on evicting asylum seekers during lockdown”, The Guardian, 28 March 2020. [17] “UN launches major humanitarian appeal to keep COVI-19 from ‘circling back around the globe’”, UN News, 25 March 2020. [18] For further details, please see UNHCR key legal considerations on access to territory for persons in need of international protection in the context of COVID-19 response, 16 March 2020, available at

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