The coronavirus pandemic is bringing out pre-existing inequalities between migrant and Japanese children.
By Dinesh Prasad Joshi Ratala, Ph.D. Candidate, Human Security Program, The University of Tokyo
Edited by Paul Namkoong
Japanese and foreign students take part in an exchange program between two elementary schools. (Rachel Martinez)
At a time when the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is calling for swift global action to protect migrant children amidst the current health crisis, an attempt should be made to understand how COVID-19 has or might have specifically affected the rights of migrant children in Japan.
Owing to their legal status, migrants – about 2% of the country’s population – may be more susceptible to the coronavirus than nationals are. In the wake of this social calamity, this understanding will perhaps lead to increased protection for this group. There are a total of 54 articles enlisted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). These rights are commonly grouped into four themes: survival, protection, development and participation. This article will analyze how the four broad categories of the rights of migrant children in Japan are influenced by the ongoing disaster.
1. Survival Rights: Meeting basic needs
“The right to life (article 6), the right to health care (article 24), and the right to enough food and clean water (article 24).”
The upsurge of daily infections has the potential to directly threaten the health and survival rights of the migrant community. While the government’s coronavirus screenings under the national health insurance plan has streamlined healthcare access for many, it is still quite difficult for the migrant community to benefit from such provisions, given the administrative hurdles one has to overcome. Families who lack the legal documents to stay in Japan are more vulnerable, as access to any health services and facilities requires documentation that is hard to obtain in their case.
As stores get picked clean by panic-buying frenzies of face masks, hand sanitizer containers, and other items seen as personal weapons against the coronavirus, some children might be psychologically traumatized about their personal health and safety. On top of that, the scarcity of food supplies, such as pasta, flour, noodles, rice and frozen foods, has limited migrants’ access to basic food supplies.
Due to the exceptional economic pressure on families, this crisis has indirectly threatened migrant children’s standard of living. Company-wide layoffs and closures, spurred by the spread of coronavirus, endanger low-skilled migrants and their families most. They face the daunting challenge of financing family expenses in Japan, the fourth-most expensive country in the world to live in. This also negatively affects the mental health of some migrant children who are of age to comprehend their parental hardships.
2. Protection Rights: Protection from any sort of fear
“The right not to be used as a cheap worker (article 32), the right not to be hurt or neglected (article 19), the right to be protected from danger (article 36), and the right to privacy (article 16)”
While the right to protection from violence is conferred upon all groups of children, those within migrant families face an exceptional risk that is further amplified by the nature of the pandemic.
Firstly, there is a possibility of exploitation of children in the form of labor within some migrant families as a means to overcome extreme financial difficulties. Children may also be subject to more domestic and physical abuse as parents become especially distressed.
Secondly, the pressure on parents to work not only bars them from interacting regularly with their children, but also increases the likelihood of infection for the entire family. Of the total workforce of 66 million in Japan, there were 1.28 million foreign workers in 2017. Although the current government has imposed a nationwide “state of emergency” since April 16th, the complete restriction of movement has itself been restricted by a deliberately-weak constitution. This has permitted migrant workers who are still employed (about 2% of the labor force) to continue unabated. The heavy reliance on trains or buses to commute between the home and workplace further skyrockets the chances of infection, as maintaining “social distancing” in these areas is short of impossible.
Thirdly, the other category of migrant workers, those who lost their jobs or incomes due to economic stagnation, again face the risk of jeopardizing migrant children’s deteriorating standard of living. While the economic impacts of coronavirus may affect all Japanese residents, migrants may bear some of the worst consequences, given that they work under more vulnerable condition.
A migrant family takes their children to school in Tokyo. School closings have deprived migrant children from receiving the same language-learning opportunities as their Japanese counterparts. (Photo from author)
3. Developmental Rights: Education and experience that allows a child to develop into an adult successfully
“The right to be with their parents or with those who will care for them best (article 9), the right to meet with other children (article 15), the right to special care, education and training, if needed (article 23), and the right to play (article 31)”
Migrant children have several development rights that grant them involvement in various activities, in addition to access to other services so as to develop their human potential. However, as families stay inside to avoid social contact, this prolonged isolation at home prevents children from enjoying various recreational opportunities, directly affecting the thinking, growth and their overall development. Furthermore, the lack of child-friendly approaches in sharing the news may cut off their right to information.
Thirdly, while the closing of all public schools has succumbed most children to monotonous livelihoods, it has disproportionately affected migrant children in much worse ways. Public schools in Japan which were originally ordered for closure from March 2nd to May 6th have been extended until the end of May throughout the country. Although not required by law, various non-mainstream schools, where most of the migrant children are believed to pursue their education, are also shut down by this directive.
It is difficult for migrant parents to provide appropriate homeschooling; supplementing the academic material of a regimented education system at home becomes much harder when accounting for the parents’ Japanese proficiency. Facilitating online classes also seems to be a challenge in the migrant community – some families do not have the necessary devices, while others lack the knowhow to operate the required software due to computer or language illiteracy. While their peers might be enjoying the online classes offered by expensive preparatory schools, known as jukus in Japan, migrant children are kept out by financial and academic adversities.
4. Participation Rights: Being involved with the wider society and having a voice while making decisions
“The right to have a say about things that affect them (article 12), the right to have ideas and say what they think (article 14), the right to get information they need (article 13), the right to speak their own language (article 30), the right to know about their rights and responsibilities (article 42)”
Every individual is granted the right to participate in matters affecting their lives. This holds true especially for migrant children whose needs might be disregarded due to their relatively lesser composition.
Firstly, in a time of crisis like the one induced by COVID-19, there is a possibility that the right to participation for migrant children may be generalized as part of all normal children, despite their minority status. This, as mentioned before, presents a whole host of rights issues. Migrant children may be at an intense and higher risk of infection due to inaccessible information about disease prevention and medical assistance. The authorities concerned may not be aware about the special needs of migrant children while disseminating said information.
Secondly, while every child is more or less deprived of the right to participate in various activities like learning, sports, and other venues that help their growth and well-being, migrant children may face greater risks of exclusion. It is possible that some of the alternative learning opportunities are exclusive of migrant children due to their legal status. Also, schools may design online lessons, but migrant children would be at greater risk of participation due to aforementioned socio-cultural and technical barriers.
Thirdly, while the absence from public schools may provide a chance for the young children to practice and learn Japanese with their family members back home, migrant children would lack this language development opportunity. This carries future consequences to their academic performance; the lack of participation of migrant children in activities aimed at boosting their creativity now has the prospect to diminish their potential in the upcoming days.
Migrant children are often enrolled in non-traditional schools that provide foreign language education programs. (Everest International School)
COVID-19 has influenced four broad categories of rights of the migrant children in Japan. First, the survival rights have been influenced by the economic difficulties, scarcity of basic food and medical supplies, unstable mental health status and issues pertaining towards an access to health institutions. Second, the issues of exploitation, abuse, personal safety, and the heightened risk of infection have challenged the security of protection rights. Third, within the broader framework of developmental rights, the isolation of migrant children for a longer period of time is believed to disproportionately affect migrant children’s right to information, as well as education and learning. Finally, the failure to materialize the participation rights of migrant children has a greater risk of their exclusion from alternative learning and recreation platforms. Marginalizing them at present has the prospect to greatly affect their sense of social security in the future.
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