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No. of foreign nationals detained at immigration facilities for over 6 months on rise

The Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau, where foreign nationals who are in Japan illegally are detained, is seen in Osaka's Suminoe Ward, on May 10, 2018. (Mainichi)

The number of foreign nationals in Japan being held in Ministry of Justice Immigration Bureau facilities for more than six months for staying illegally in Japan has risen steeply -- increasing 9 points from the end of 2016 to 36.8 percent by December 2017.

The increase in those kept for a long period of time appears to be the result of the government cutting back on "provisional release" procedures that allow for the release of someone on humanitarian grounds even if they do not have a valid residency status to stay in Japan. Under the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, detention and provisional release can only be decided by the Immigration Bureau itself and can be extended without limit. Experts are pointing out the need for legal oversight of the decisions by a court of law, while supporters of detainees are calling for a loosening of the provisional release system from a humanitarian point of view.

For foreign nationals in Japan without a legal residency status, the Immigration Bureau submits a written detention order, and that individual can be held at a facility for up to 60 days. If a review of their case following their internment decides that the person will be deported, then they can be held for an undetermined length of time before they are repatriated via a written deportation order. All decisions are made purely internally by the bureau.

While a system allowing provisional release is in place for humanitarian reasons, there have been cases where someone has been kept in detention for over five years.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of Dec. 19, 2017, there were 1,386 people in the Immigration Bureau's detention facilities around Japan, and of them, 510 had been kept in the facility for over six months. At the close of 2016, there were only 313 people who had been held for over half a year out of the 1,133 individuals detained -- 27.6 percent.

Part of the reason for the increase is the Justice Ministry cracking down on foreign nationals staying in Japan illegally as well as tightening up how the ministry handles applications for refugee status. On top of this, the ministry used to give working permission to foreign nationals in Japan under a legal residency status six months after their application for refugee status. However, the ministry introduced "measures to promote repatriation" on a trial basis in March 2017 on the grounds that a growing number of people apply for refugee status in order to receive permission to work.

Under this policy, if a person applies three times for refugee status without an appropriate reason for seeking the recognition, they will be marked for deportation, and after being sent to a detention facility, and "with the exclusion of those facing special circumstances, procedures (for deportation) will proceed without provisional release."

Just this January, the ministry announced even stricter changes to how the refugee recognition system would be applied. If an applicant lists a reason such as having escaped from debt collectors and other circumstances that clearly do not meet the criteria for being granted refugee status, they will directly proceed to deportation procedures upon the expiration of their residency status, even if it is only their first time applying for refugee recognition.

While a foreign national suing the government requesting not to be deported cannot be sent back while the trial is in progress, it is still difficult for provisional release to be approved, and this has reportedly led to the staggering growth in the number of long term detainees. In 2015, 3,606 foreign nationals whose deportation had been decided were granted provisional release until leaving the country, but that number fell to 3,106 people in 2017.

In addition to regional immigration bureaus in Tokyo, Osaka and across the country, there is also the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture and the Omura Immigration Center in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, for a total of 17 detention facilities in Japan. Since 2008, 12 detainees have died. In April of this year, an Indian man in his 30s took his own life at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, raising the number of suicides in the facilities to five.

A 54-year-old woman from the Philippines has been in detention at the Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau facility in Osaka's Suminoe Ward since February 2016, and agreed to an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun.

"I have no idea when they are going to let me go, and I'm just anxious," she said. She is in the middle of a trial requesting her deportation for ignoring a request to appear at the regional immigration bureau be revoked. She says that her 19-year-old son that she had with a Japanese man who has Japanese citizenship is being forced to live on his own.

Her legal representative, lawyer Yoshihiro Sorano said, "She is at fault for her actions, but leaving a minor alone by detaining her for so long is the problem here."

(Japanese original by Tomo Yamaguchi, Osaka City News Department)

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