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Japan's hidden darkness: Deaths, inhumane treatment rife at immigration centers

An image from surveillance footage taken of the Cameroonian man whose case was heard at the Mito District Court is seen here. The image shows him in pain on the floor, having fallen from his wheelchair. The image was provided by the plaintiff's legal team.

TOKYO -- Persistent cases of foreign nationals without residency status dying in detention facilities across Japan point to a hidden darkness, at odds with a country set to welcome the world at the Olympics and Paralympics next year amid a historic tourism boom.

At the Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture, southwest Japan, a detainee died at the end of June while on hunger strike. Another foreign national died in 2014 at a facility in Ibaraki Prefecture northeast of Tokyo. A trial over the Ibaraki case recently exposed the miserable conditions in which detained individuals are kept.


It's May 24 at the Mito District Court, courtroom number 302. On a large monitor, a man is seen on the floor, writhing in agony. "I'm dying, I'm dying," he says. His faltering, pained voice echoes from the screen and across the courtroom. Around 12 hours after the security footage was taken, he was found in same cell in cardiorespiratory arrest. He was later taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The footage came from recordings captured in March 2014 by a security camera at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. The victim was a Cameroonian man who had arrived in Japan in October 2013, then aged 43.

Detained shortly after entering the country, it emerged from a government diagnosis the following November that he had health issues including diabetes. In the month prior to his death, he had complained of chest pains and difficulty breathing, and further pain in his legs meant he struggled to walk. When other detainees could no longer bear to see his suffering, they appealed to staff at the center to let him be seen by a doctor.

The center moved him to the camera-monitored "recuperation room" on March 27, three days before he died. Although the measures taken by the center indicate they considered his condition to have worsened enough to warrant constant monitoring, it's said that there was no opportunity for him to be seen by a doctor from the day he was moved until his death.

In September 2017, the deceased man's family launched a lawsuit seeking compensation of 10 million yen for losses against the national government and the head of the center at the time of his death.

Back on the screen in the Mito courtroom, a group of immigration officials enter the room. Footage of them trying to drag the man onto a wheelchair is shown. Though he is clearly in pain, the officials shout "No!" at him in harsh, admonishing tones.

Footage shows him falling repeatedly from the bed and wheelchair, ending up writhing on the floor. At around 8 p.m. on the day before he dies, his movements gradually become more languid and his speech became choppy. After a groan escapes his lips, his arms, outstretched toward the wheelchair while he remains on the ground, fall. Unsparing images of a man facing the end of his life play out in the court.

The judge watches the images intently, hand over mouth with a flushed face. At 1 a.m. on the day he died, the man is on the floor, and his head and feet are shaking. Left in that state, he is confirmed six hours later to have suffered cardiorespiratory arrest.

The government maintains it is not responsible for what happened, that the man was given care including water, and that immigration authorities carried out their measures correctly. But there were moments in the trial that day that brought the government team's prudence into question.

Responding to one question about the case from a judge, a lawyer representing the government said with a smile, "We still haven't gotten a response (from Cameroon)" -- a response that could be interpreted as prejudice toward a developing country. A voice from the gallery could be heard criticizing the government team's attitude, saying, "How can you smile while the responsibility for the loss of a life is called into question?"

The plaintiff's side sought to uncover the circumstances surrounding the man's death. They asked how was he being monitored and by how many employees, and why it was decided an ambulance didn't need to be called even though he was complaining of pain in a loud voice.

The representative for the complainant, lawyer Koichi Kodama, criticized the center's response. "A death under detention is a serious incident. Records of an internal investigation and an acknowledgement of the facts should still remain. But even these haven't been brought to light," he said.

Kodama noted that the government had a clear responsibility for the health of detainees. "The reality is that incidents where the government maintains that it 'did what it should, but it couldn't foresee a death' are common," he said. "There have even been cases where immigration staffers have confirmed that a detainee's pulse has stopped, but still judged it as a case of feigned illness."

The family of the deceased, who live abroad, had struggled to launch the suit -- a case of the government being held responsible for deaths in enclosed spaces at its immigration facilities is rare.

Mehmet Colak speaks during a June 24, 2019 news conference in Tokyo's Minato Ward. (Mainichi/Akihiro Ogomori)

Mehmet Colak, 39, who was provisionally released in June from his detainment at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Minato Ward, said of the state of healthcare under detention, "I tried to get seen by a doctor while I was in the center, but it took as long as three weeks for one to come. All you could do was wait."

Colak is Kurdish; he came to Japan in 2004 to escape persecution in Turkey. While seeking recognition of refugee status he lived with his family of five, but was detained in January 2018. In March 2019, he complained of searing pain to his chest and head, but immigration officers reportedly just said to him, "You're still alive, aren't you? You're talking, aren't you?"

When explaining the conditions at the time of Colak's detention, a representative of the Tokyo bureau said, "The appropriate response was provided; there were no problems."

Based on known cases alone, since 2007 some 15 foreign nationals have died while being transported or after being detained by immigration authorities in Japan.

On June 24, a Nigerian man in his 40s died at the Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture, in southwest Japan.

The center itself has not provided detailed information on his identity or details of the circumstances in the case, but according to people including those who had been supporting him, he was 49 years old. He was first detained in Osaka in November 2015, and then transferred to Nagasaki in 2016. At the time of his death, he was reportedly on a hunger strike, as a protest against being refused permission for provisional release.

Upon receiving news of his death on July 1, the Tokyo Bar Association said, "The detainee was cornered and ultimately driven to death by a policy of indefinitely long detention." The head of the association called for changes to the way in which detainee cases are handled.

On July 5, amid calls from citizens in activist groups, around 60 people gathered outside the Ministry of Justice to protest over the government's handling of the cases.

At the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, hunger strikes began in May, with close to 30 people participating by the end of June. One of the hunger strikers, a 45-year-old Iranian man, spoke to a Mainichi Shimbun reporter who came for a face-to-face visit on June 26. Describing the state of the center, he said, "Do you realize how many people lost their lives as a result of illness or suicide? This is the only resistance we have."

Detention and processing for deportation is one administrative punishment for foreign residents who have lost permission to stay in Japan. This is not a criminal penalty. But even convicted criminals who have committed serious crimes do not have to struggle in such a harsh environment, where people cry out in pain with a sense that death is only hours away.

"It's as if immigration officials don't think of foreign nationals under detention as human beings," said Kodama, the lawyer in the Cameroonian man's case, as he reflected on the continuing deaths.

Even so, awareness of human rights issues at detention centers is becoming more widespread among the general population. In early June, a group of some 30 people came together in Tokyo to study the issue. A 28-year-old woman at the gathering who works at a restaurant spoke about her meetings with people at the centers, saying, "Almost all long-term detainees have health problems, from issues with their kidneys and other internal organs, to skin diseases and mental health problems."

The meetings started around a year ago, following the suicide of a 32-year-old Indian man in April 2018 at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center. The 28-year-old woman admitted that going to speak directly to detainees about their hardships was tough.

When asked why she still does it, she said, "It's hard to accept that the taxes we pay are being used to make people suffer. If we as the majority don't try to change what's happening, then nothing will change." She says that when the detainees thank her for her efforts, she tells them that the group is simply cleaning up after the government's mess.

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

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