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Left in limbo: Japan's haphazard immigration policies, disrespect for human rights

Farhad Ghassemi's father, Seyfollah Ghassemi, had been detained at Higashi Nihon Immigration Center, also known as Ushiku Detention Center, until his provisional release in October of last year. Pictured here at his home in Kanagawa Prefecture on March 12, 2019, Seyfollah says he is worried that his provisional release could be revoked at any time. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

Japan is expected to see an influx of at least 340,000 people in the next five years, as a result of the amended Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that went into effect April 1. But are this country's people, society and legal system ready for such a sudden shift? Foreign nationals who have already lived in Japan for years and their Japanese supporters cast doubt not only on Japan's preparedness, but on its willingness.

Kanagawa resident Farhad Ghassemi, 17, was born in Japan to an Iranian father and a Japanese Bolivian mother. He's an Iranian national, but the extent of his skills in Farsi and Spanish, his father's and mother's mother tongues, respectively, are minimal. He filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court seeking, among other things, the invalidation of a deportation order that was issued when he was 6 years old. On Feb. 28, however, Presiding Judge Chieko Shimizu dismissed all of his requests.

Farhad was sitting in the gallery the moment the ruling was handed down. He cradled his head in his arms and did not move for a while afterward. "I was shocked," he says. "I can't help but think they're just bullying us."

Farhad's father, 50-year-old Seyfollah Ghassemi, entered Japan in 1992, seeking work. Here he met Liliana, 50, and the two married. Their son Farhad was born in 2002. In 2009, the year after Seyfollah was arrested for overstaying his visa, the family of three was issued a written deportation order.

Farhad's status until now has been "provisional release," meaning he does not have a residence permit but is not in detention, allowing him to receive an education alongside his Japanese peers. The latest ruling has forced Farhad to enter his final year of high school not knowing what will happen to him, under an unauthorized status. He wants to further his education, but does not know how many universities here accept foreign nationals without authorization to live in Japan. Farhad appealed the district court's ruling to the Tokyo High Court.

Farhad is naturally worried about what lies ahead. "I can't plan my future," he said.

This reporter has recently visited the family's home in Kanagawa Prefecture. By the window was a photo of the family taken at an aquarium before Farhad had started elementary school. "Japan is the only place where all three of us can live together," Seyfollah said.

Seyfollah is Muslim, while Liliana is Christian. In Iran, even the inter-sect marriage of Sunnis and Shias is highly controversial. Under Iranian law, Liliana would be forced to convert to Islam. Farhad, who does not follow any religion, would also be forced to become Muslim.

The Tokyo District Court acknowledged that there was a "risk of great loss" if Farhad's request for permission to stay in Japan were not granted, because Farhad's life was deeply rooted in Japan, both in terms of language and lifestyle. Moreover, the court stated that "the plaintiff could not be held responsible" for the fact that he has been on overstay status since he was 6 years old. And yet, the reasoning that is given for the government's ultimate decision not to grant Farhad special residence permission is that it is "within the discretion of the government," and is "legitimate."

"This is the true face of a country that amended its immigration law to say, 'Welcome, foreign laborers,'" says journalist Koichi Yasuda, who witnessed the sentencing in the gallery of the courtroom. "For self-serving reasons, the state is trying to kick out people who have actually put down roots in Japan. It's a complete contradiction."

Yasuda writes about discrimination against foreign nationals and human rights issues in his latest book, "Danchi to imin" (Danchi apartments and immigrants). He points out that until 1992, the year Seyfollah arrived in Japan, Iran and Japan had a mutual visa waiver agreement in place. "At the time, micro-, small- and mid-sized businesses were highly dependent on Iranian laborers, making their presence crucial. Many people can probably recall the sight of many Iranian workers who, on their days off, would congregate at parks in Tokyo to exchange information," Yasuda says. "The Japanese government was effectively giving its approval to Iranian labor."

However, once Japan's economy tanked, society's anti-foreign rhetoric spread. It was against this backdrop, Yasuda explains, that the government beefed up its policy of urging Iranians to leave Japan. Meanwhile, the 1990s saw a surge in the number of laborers coming into Japan from Brazil and other countries due to relaxed visa requirements for foreign nationals of Japanese descent.

"(Farhad's mother) Liliana, who is of Japanese descent, arrived in Japan in 1994. Families like the Ghassemis are precisely the result of Japan's haphazard immigration policies. And now the children of the couples who met in Japan are being told to leave the country. The phenomenon is symbolic of Japanese society," Yasuda says.

Once in Japan, Seyfollah experienced discrimination at the workplace when he was an automobile mechanic, and also in his everyday life. But he recalls that ever since he met Liliana, they "helped each other lead their lives in Japan, a country that was unfamiliar to both of us." Reading the court ruling handed to Farhad, it makes one wonder whether foreign nationals who come to Japan are forbidden from falling in love or getting married depending on their visa status.

"Such bans actually exist in Japan," Yasuda tells the Mainichi Shimbun.

Through interns with the Technical Intern Training Program whom he has interviewed, Yasuda has learned of cases in which bans on dating and getting married -- regardless of the other party's nationality -- are clearly outlined in the interns' workplace regulations. "It's like middle school 'seito techo' (school rulebooks that most Japanese middle schools distribute to their students), but they're forcing these rules on foreign nationals in their 20s and 30s," he says. "One rule even went like this: 'Conduct that could result in pregnancy is banned.' Japanese employers think they can include such a rule in their work regulations if they're targeted toward foreign laborers."

At the same time that the amended immigration laws went into force in a bid to bring more foreign workers to Japan, the long-term detentions of foreign nationals who have overstayed their visas is a common sight at immigration detention centers across the country. As of the end of July 2018, of the 1,309 detainees nationwide, 54% had been detained for six months or longer. According to attorneys and others who provide assistance to foreign workers in Japan, 13 foreign nationals died by suicide or from illness while in detention between 2007 and 2018. Many detainees complain of appalling health conditions at detention centers, saying they are hardly permitted to see physicians.

A damages lawsuit brought against the central government at the Mito District Court for the 2014 death of a then 43-year-old Cameroonian man while he was detained at Higashi Nihon Immigration Center in the Ibaraki Prefecture city of Ushiku is ongoing. His mother, who resides in Cameroon, filed the suit.

According to the legal complaint that was filed, the man had been confirmed as diabetic after a medical consultation at the immigration center. He began to complain of pain in February 2014, and died at the end of March that year. Security cameras at the center captured him saying in English that he felt like he was dying starting the night before his death, and the footage has been saved as evidence. Even after the man fell from his bed, he was left unattended, and a staff member found him in cardiopulmonary arrest the following morning. He was transported to a hospital where he was confirmed dead.

"Immigration officials have a duty to provide emergency medical care," says the plaintiff's attorney, Koichi Kodama. "The government should be accountable for revealing who was watching the footage of the man rolling around on the floor, screaming in pain, and whether anyone went directly to his room to check on his condition."

There is no way a society that does not respect the human rights of individual foreigners and only sees them as "cheap labor" or "targets of public security measures" can flourish.

Says journalist Yasuda, "There are times when I wonder if Japan should be allowed to bring in foreigners, or has the right to bring in foreigners. At the same time, though, I believe that it's a good thing for society that people with different roots live together. I think that the media should stop reporting on foreigners as people to be pitied, and not forget that this is a problem with our society."

(Japanese original by Jun Ida, Integrated Digital News Center, Evening Edition Group)

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