Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Re-detention of asylum seekers in Japan, hunger strikes show strained immigration system

Before surrendering himself to authorities at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, Safari Diman Heydar thanks his supporters in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Aug. 14, 2019. He was subsequently re-detained. (Mainichi/Ida)

"What violations have I committed in the past two weeks? Isn't it more of a violation of rules to bully a person like me, who has filed for recognition of refugee status?" asked Safari Diman Heydar. It was late August, and the 50-year-old Iranian national was in a wheelchair when he appeared at a visitation room at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in the Ibaraki Prefecture city of Ushiku, northeast of Tokyo.

It has recently become common practice at Japanese immigration facilities to re-detain foreign nationals -- who lost their status of residence in Japan and have been issued deportation orders -- after granting them provisional release following long-term detentions. Supporters and attorneys who work for the rights of foreign nationals call it abuse, saying that the practice plays around with the health and lives of human beings.

In the case of Heydar, who had been detained for at least three years, provisional release was granted on July 31, while he was on a hunger strike. But two weeks later, when he visited the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in the capital's Minato Ward to renew his release term, an official told him that the duration of his provisional release could not be extended. That same day, Heydar was transferred to the Ushiku immigration center once again. He was given no reason for the bureau's decision.

Having resumed his hunger strike, Heydar's cheeks and eyes had sunken in further than before his re-detention. He said he'd lost at least 5 kilograms in a week, and he shed tears as he said, "I have no other method of making a statement but to hurt my own body."

The hunger strike at the Ushiku center spread gradually from May, and by the end of July, some 100 detainees were taking part in it. A 40-year-old Turkish man who visited immigration authorities two days after Heydar followed the same fate, put in detention once again after a two-week provisional release. Multiple detainees had been taken into detention after a two-week conditional discharge prior to the two men, and among them, there was at least one who was told by an immigration officer when he left on his provisional release, "Make sure you come back in two weeks, OK?" hinting that the man would be re-detained when he got back.

"To immediately return a man who had just been at the same detention center two weeks prior can only be interpreted as the immigration authorities' attempt to make an example of him to other detainees, to say 'hunger strikes are useless,'" explained Chie Komai, an attorney representing Heydar.

The trend toward increasingly longer detention periods is clear after examining data. As of the end of 2017, of the 1,351 detainees nationwide, 576 had been in detention for six months or longer. A year later, the number of detainees in the country had dropped to 1,246, but the number of those who had been in detention for six months or longer had risen to 681, or approximately 55 percent of those being detained.

"This is an abnormal situation in which detention periods of three years or longer is not much of an anomaly anymore," asserted Takeshi Ohashi, the aforementioned Turkish national's attorney, who has handled immigration cases for at least 20 years. "I have no recollection of this ever happening in the past." Some hold suspicions that the practice of re-detaining people after releasing them provisionally for a short period of time is a measure taken to keep the number of long-term detainees statistically low.

One of the cases believed to have sparked the start of provisional releases with the presupposition of re-detention is that of a Nigerian man in his 40s who died at Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture, southwestern Japan, on June 24. It has been reported that the man was in the midst of a hunger strike, but his cause of death has not been disclosed. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations and others have called for a third-party investigation into the case, but the Immigration Services Agency has told the Mainichi Shimbun that it does not intend to accept any probes.

Hiroshi Yunohara, a pastor based in Omura who supports and arranges visitation and prayers at Omura Immigration Center, revealed that the case made him feel that "it was time for me to raise my voice and get moving." In his activities supporting detainees, which he began in 2005, he had been providing emotional care for the detainees and others involved, focusing on lending an ear to people so they can talk about their trials and tribulations. However, after the man's death at Omura Immigration Center, Yunohara, for the first time in his career as a pastor, released statements directed at the head of the Omura center, the justice minister and the prime minister demanding the "swift release of long-term detainees."

Yunohara remembers the Nigerian man's joyful expression as he told him that his daughter had come to visit him at the detention center. "He was a gentle-natured man, but when his application for provisional release was rejected about a month before his death, he refused to receive any visitors and he apparently also stopped talking to the other detainees," he said. "Following his death, a lot of anxiety and distrust has spread throughout the detention center."

Asked about the man's death at a press conference following a July 2 Cabinet meeting, Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita stated, "In cases in which the prospects of swift repatriation are unclear due to problems relating to health or other issues, we will use the provisional release system in a flexible manner."

Attorney Ohashi suggested, "Until now, hunger strikes didn't prompt any provisional releases, but after the man's death, the authorities may have changed their policy to that of temporarily releasing detainees if they're on the brink of death."

However, Shoko Sasaki, the first commissioner of the Immigration Services Agency since it launched in April this year, told a press conference held at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo in mid-July, "We have a duty to deport, and we will solve the issue of long-term detentions by repatriating people in an expeditious manner." Sasaki referred to foreign nationals in detention as "people that we cannot have within this country," and said that "if they agree to being deported, then they will be allowed to leave (the detention centers) as early as tomorrow." She emphasized that there was no change in the government's policy of seeking repatriation.

Ohashi explained, "Outside of criminal punishment, a system in which the state inflicts suffering for a certain purpose is inexcusable. Detention is not criminal punishment, but rather a measure to prevent escape. I believe that using that as a means to drive people into a corner so they have no other choice but to be repatriated is a type of torture." He continued, "If the authorities are trying to lull people -- whom legally speaking, authorities cannot deport because they are applying for asylum or have family members in Japan -- toward repatriation by inflicting great suffering on them through long-term detention, and to scare them into quitting hunger strikes, it's an appalling policy."

Former immigration officer Yoichi Kinoshita believes that long-term detention has no merits -- for either the immigration authorities or those applying for refugee status or other kinds of residency status in Japan. "It does not only have little effect on promoting deportation, but makes foreign nationals even more hardened in their attitude and behavior," he said.

When he was transferred from the Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA) to an immigration bureau in 2001, Kinoshita found his work rewarding, as he believed its aim was to crack down on "bad foreigners." But he eventually began to have doubts about the organization and what it was doing, and resigned this past March. He then founded Nyukan Mondai Kyuen Center, an organization that provides assistance to those facing immigration-related problems.

Of the present situation, in which hunger strikes have spread across multiple detention centers, Kinoshita remarked, "This is probably the first time that there has been disorder of this scale, and that the relationship between detainees and immigration authorities has been this strained." Kinoshita is also critical of the practice of provisionally releasing detainees who have become physically frail from hunger strikes and re-detaining them after a short period.

"Under the current system, immigration officials do not have to disclose the reason for allowing provisional release, or the reason for not extending provisional release and re-detaining someone," Kinoshita pointed out. "If one cannot know the reason for the decisions made over one's physical freedom, isn't it only natural that distrust toward immigration authorities is exacerbated and people remain unconvinced?"

One of the challenges facing the immigration system is the fact that it is difficult to measure what constitutes an achievement, according to Kinoshita. "Immigration officials capture, detain, decide on forced repatriation, and repatriate foreign nationals based on the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. This entire process is carried out by a single organization without checks and balances by outside bodies, like the courts. Because of this, the self-corrective ability of the organization has a hard time functioning, and deportations are carried out without significant scrutiny or verification. This has given rise to an environment in which such deportations are considered 'achievements,'" said Kinoshita, who calls such organizational culture "immigration-mindedness."

"There appears to be no way out of this battle of patience between immigration authorities who want to make detainees give up under 'immigration-mindedness,' and detainees who fight back with hunger strikes. Immigration officers on the ground are becoming worn out," Kinoshita said. "I believe we've come to a point where foreign nationals who have not created any problems outside of violating the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, and who have been detained for over a certain period of time, be it one year or two, should be, as a general rule, approved for provisional release."

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

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media