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Editorial: Japan needs to tackle human rights abuses at detention centers

A Nigerian man's death after staging a hunger strike at an immigration facility in Japan where he was detained for 3 1/2 years has called into question the Japanese government's awareness of human rights.

The man in his 40s received a deportation order after serving time in prison for theft and other offenses, and was sent to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan's detention facility in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Nagasaki. He was asking for provisional release and requesting that he be allowed to stay in Japan because he had children to a Japanese woman he divorced. However, he starved to death in June 2019.

Non-Japanese nationals who have been issued with written deportation orders on the grounds that they have no status of residence are detained at immigration facilities. There are no provisions on the periods of such detentions.

Of 1,253 detainees as of the end of June, 679, or 54%, had been detained for at least six months. Two years earlier, the number of those being detained at immigration facilities for such a long period accounted for 30% of the total. There is currently at least one person who has been in detention for seven years. Long-term detainees are staging hunger strikes at such facilities across the country to protest their prolonged detentions.

As to the reasons why the detention periods of many foreigners are being prolonged, the agency explained that approximately 70% of detainees are refusing to be deported. However, some critics have noted that the number of those granted provisional release has been decreasing since 2016 and attribute the increase in the number of long-term detainees to authorities' stiffening of conditions for temporarily releasing them.

The Immigration Services Agency of Japan argues that roughly 40% of those refusing to be deported have been convicted of offenses other than violations of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and should not be provisionally released. Since those being held are not deported while applying for refugee status, the agency suspects that a certain number of detainees are abusing the system to evade being forced to go home.

However, the majority of those who receive deportation orders leave Japan. Those who refuse to be deported fear that their safety would be threatened in their home countries or that they would have to be separated from their families in Japan.

Physical freedom is a core of fundamental human rights. Provisional release should be applied more flexibly. Some experts have pointed out that many detainees commit crimes or escape while being provisionally released because they are banned from working.

Moreover, it is necessary to set a limit on the periods of detentions based on deportation orders. Detention is nothing but preparations to deport those being held. Many other countries and regions set upper limits on such detentions. For example, the European Union limits such periods to six months in principle.

The Immigration Services Agency of Japan and the justice minister take procedures for deportations and detentions of violators of immigration laws as administrative dispositions. Since such decisions deprive those affected of their physical freedom, the government should consider a system in which courts are involved in such procedures.

United Nations organizations have repeatedly expressed concerns about Japan's immigration control system. An advisory council will recommend to the agency by the end of the current fiscal year measures to improve the situation surrounding those detained over a long period.

Japan has expanded the scope of foreign nationals allowed to work in the country to help make up for a serious labor shortage. Japan's response to the prolonged detentions of those who violated immigration laws is a barometer of how Japan is going to face up to issues concerning non-Japanese nationals.

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