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Election talk on foreigner human rights limited despite rise in long-term detentions

Shichiro Shishikura is seen reminiscing about Mohammad Ali Rahmani in his car, which they often rode in together, in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, on June 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Jun Kaneko)

TOKYO -- With the polls for the House of Councillors election set to open July 21, calls for debate on the treatment of foreign nationals residing in the country illegally have grown following strong indications that long-term detentions by the Immigration Services Agency of Japan are increasing in length and number.

Although a significant number of foreign nationals have difficulty returning to their home countries due to a variety of circumstances, their human rights are rarely discussed at election time due to their disenfranchisement.

But following the significant expanded acceptance of foreign nationals to Japan under April's revised immigration law, support groups are saying a new system making it easier for foreigners to live in the country needs to be put under consideration.

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Shichiro Shishikura, 73, was head of a building materials firm in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. His former employee, Iranian national Mohammad Ali Rahmani, 49, is currently under long-term detention at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo.

It will soon be two years since he was taken to the center. Speaking about Rahmani's situation, Shishikura says, "Why won't they release him? It seems so cruel, given he worked so hard here." He visits him once a month at the center, but is concerned by what he sees, "His condition is gradually getting worse and worse."

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Rahmani struggled to adapt to life under the strict religious precepts it ushered in. He was held by the police multiple times; fearing for his life, he left for Japan in 1990, aged just 21. At the time, he didn't need a visa to enter, and through a chance meeting with another Iranian living in the country he found employment with Shishikura's company.

"When he told me he had no one here, I felt so sorry for him," says Shishikura. He arranged a room in a dormitory for Rahmani and hired him as a truck driver. This taking place during Japan's "bubble economy," many foreign workers were used to plug up labor shortages in the construction business.

Back then, public institutions didn't seek detailed confirmation of workers' residence status either. "It wasn't a major concern whether someone was seeking work illegally or not," says Shishikura.

Rahmani thought of Shishikura as a father, and worked tirelessly for him. His own parents died from illness shortly after he came to Japan, and he no longer knows the whereabouts of his older siblings. He came to think that the only path available to him was to carry on living here.

An inspection while he was out driving exposed his status and led to his detainment. The principle for immigration services is that foreign nationals living illegally in Japan must remain under detention until they return to their country of origin. But the services do have systems to provisionally release detainees under humane considerations.

Rahmani was released under the system about a year after he was detained. But, he was forbidden from finding work, so Shishikura found him accommodation in the dormitory again and helped him lead his life. Then about two years ago, the immigration bureau put him back into detention without clarifying why.

In June, Rahmani spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun at a visit to the center. Through tears, in Japanese, he said, "The only place I have to go back to is my dad's (Shishikura). Where else can I go?"

According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, in 2013 there were 914 people being held under detention measures. Of that number, 263 people, 29%, were under long-term detention of over six months. Data from the end of 2018 shows a stark increase in both areas, with detainees at 1,246, and 681 of them, 55%, under long-term detention.

Writer Hiroki Mochizuki, 33, an expert on immigration in society, said, "Immigration has a wide range of powers, with almost no third-party organizations overseeing its practices. It's difficult for foreign nationals' human rights to become an election issue. Questions are being raised over how Japanese voters should face the issue."

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Campaign pledges from Japan's major political parties regarding foreign nationals residing in Japan:

The Liberal Democratic Party: A more thorough residency system and societal measures including improvements in education.

Komeito: Improvements to residency management of foreign residents and enrollment management of foreign students.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan: Protection of the rights of foreign workers.

The Democratic Party for the People: Recruitment of foreign workers in regional communities.

Japanese Communist Party: Establishment of a system to protect the rights of foreign nationals and abolition of the technical intern training program.

Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party): Residence management system for foreign nationals based on the "My Number" social security and tax number system.

Social Democratic Party: Protection of the rights of foreign workers and review of the status of residency system.

(Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

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