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Intensifying rights abuses against foreigners held in detention put Japan on dangerous path

Behzad Abdollahi is seen speaking in the street about the long-term detention of foreign nationals and other topics related to Japan's immigration agencies' treatment of foreigners in the facilities, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- The grave situation caused by the Immigration Services Agency of Japan's policy of keeping foreigners in Japan in long-term detention over visa violations has reached the point that a detainee at one facility was reported to have starved to death.

In the agency's report on the first known starvation death at one of its facilities, it ignored accusations of human rights infringements, while maintaining that there had been no problem with the way it had responded to the case.

Foreign nationals who lose status of residence in Japan are subject to detention and subsequent deportation proceedings. People continue to be kept in custody even when their removal from the country has no clear path to resolution, or is far off.

In October, a government panel of experts met to examine immigration detentions, amid heightening concern that severe practices could become baked into the system.

On the night of Nov. 2, 41-year-old Iranian Behzad Abdollahi stands in the public square outside JR Shinjuku Station's east exit, microphone in hand. He speaks in measured, polite Japanese: "We, as human beings, want our human rights to be protected. We need help from people who are concerned by these issues." Along with his supporters, passersby also stopped to listen; in all, over 100 people took in Abdollahi's words.

Eight days earlier, Abdollahi was put on temporary release from the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. Provisional releases are granted on condition that the detainee not seek employment, among other limits on their activities. The person must also return to detention by a certain date.

Abdollahi has been on a hunger strike over his long-term detention on the grounds that it is inhumane, and this release marked the first time he has been free in about 3 years and 10 months. He received just two weeks leave from the facility. Five days after his appearance in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, he had to present himself at the immigration center again. "My body and soul are ragged, I have no appetite. At night I can barely sleep," he said.

A Kurdish man of Turkish nationality, 40, was also at the event, appealing to people in the streets. He was under provisional release from Oct. 25. The immigration agency has granted a slew of two-week or so provisional releases to people on hunger strike since it emerged in June that a Nigerian man had died while fasting in protest against his treatment in the Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture, southwestern Japan.

One of their supporters at the event said of the temporary release system, "It's like taking a drowning person, pulling them up from the water for an instant to get a gulp of air, and then pushing them back down again."

For the Kurdish man, his October provisional release was his second since August. He and Abdollahi went back to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau on their appointed day, Nov. 7. But, as expected, the bureau did not grant an extension, and both were put back in detention.

However, the changes in the bureau's handling of detainees since the Nigerian man's death haven't stopped at short releases. Rules on obtaining time out have hardened. Sources involved in supporting people under confinement have said that pension recipients can no longer become guarantors for provisional release applicants, a rule that did not exist before. The Kurdish man added, "In August the security deposit required was 100,000 yen (about US $921), but during the process in October they wanted 500,000 yen."

The experience of detainees has corroborated remarks given by then Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai at an Oct. 4 press conference, when he said the ministry would be making changes to toughen up guarantor vetting and reviewing the security deposit amounts.

A supporter of the detainees said, "I've heard that, when another foreigner was granted temporary release, the official in charge said, 'This time it's 500,000 yen, but next time it'll be (the maximum) 3 million yen.' Hearing that amount after they'd struggled to get even 500,000 yen together led them to despair."

In the period around these changes, the Immigration Services Agency released a document on Oct. 1 concerning "The reality of deportation evaders." It was released on the same day that the death by starvation case at Omura Immigration Center was announced.

The report reads, "In cases where all deportation procedural steps have been exhausted, speedy deportation is the desired outcome." Even though there are foreign nationals who wish to remain here, due to fears they could be persecuted in their home country, or because they have family living in Japan, the government is emphasizing that deportations should be accelerated to reduce long-term detainee numbers.

Additionally, on Oct. 21 the agency held its first meeting of a special committee of experts tasked with investigating measures against lengthening detentions. At it, discussions commenced on potential new provisions, such as creating new penalties to encourage faster deportation.

According to the report, as of the end of June some 858 of the 1,147 people in detention were classed as "deportation evaders." It also said that 43% of that number had been found guilty of crimes at some point in the past. The report declares that the temporary release of people with criminal records "is not something that should be accepted from the point of view of maintaining the safety and security of our country. They must be deported as soon as possible."

By disseminating the impression that "foreigners are scary" across the media and through other channels, it is transparently the case that the immigration agency is trying to legitimize its handling of detentions.

Masako Suzuki, a lawyer and expert on the human rights of foreign nationals, said, "It's like they're saying that people who have been punished for crimes in the past 'might do something bad, so let's detain them.' Japan's legal code doesn't allow for this kind of logic.

"For precisely that reason, the Immigration Services Agency would never explain it that way in court."

"Preventative detention" provisions for placing someone in custody because they might do something bad can be found in the prewar Public Security Preservation Law. Suzuki said, "People who have committed crimes (and been convicted) have already served their time before being held in detention" by the immigration authorities.

"Furthermore, even the immigration agency's statistics show that not even half the people it is detaining have been found guilty of a crime. There is no reason to keep so many people locked up indefinitely on this basis."

One of the people being held at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center is a 35-yaer-old Myanmar man who came to Japan as a technical intern at the end of 2015. He was meant to work on a farm growing melons and other produce in Ibaraki Prefecture for three years. But a Japanese person at the farm would often beat him with a metal pipe, and he ran away after just over two years -- a violation of his residency status. He hid at the home of an acquaintance, but in March 2018 he was found by immigration authorities and put in detention.

To send him to Japan, his parents had mortgaged their home and fields to cover his costs. He would send around 90,000 yen a month home, or 60% of his salary, but he said that because he left the job before he had finished paying off the loan, his parents had lost their home and their land.

"If I return (to Myanmar) now, the fields and the house won't come back. Like this, I can't return even if I want to," he said. Quite the opposite of being at risk of "doing something bad," it is common to find foreigners in prolonged detention who were themselves the victims of what one can only term "crimes."

On Oct. 10, a group of lawyers including Masako Suzuki held a press conference as the legal representatives of the two detainees who had been put on provisional release for just two weeks, the Iranian Abdollahi and the Kurdish man. They announced that they had brought up their case as an infringement of human rights to a United Nations working group.

According to the International Covenants on Human Rights, physical restraint, in other words detention, for immigration control must meet certain requirements to be valid, such as a court decision or a logical or necessary reason.

Following the Immigration Services Agency's expert committee meeting, the Tokyo Bar Association released a statement on Oct. 31 under the name of its president Chikara Shinozuka. The statement called for drastic discussions from the viewpoint of human rights protections, and making the committee meetings and their minutes public.

Teruo Tojo, a lawyer who took part in the press conference to announce the statement, said, "To avoid long-term detentions, a limit to the number of days someone can be held should be decided, but there are no signs they're even investigating this possibility. Former Justice Minister Kawai said things before the meeting such as that the expansion of the scope of special permission for residence (for people who have connections such as family in Japan) was 'not set to be reviewed.' It appears the government has already decided how the talks will conclude."

In an October policy speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to Japan's role in promoting equality for all races at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He said that the ideals that Japan held out back then have turned into what are now fundamental principles of the international community, including the International Covenants on Human Rights.

In response to his statement, lawyer Masako Suzuki said, "If he wants to boast about Japan's position in having helped found the International Covenants on Human Rights, then his government should protect those rights.

"The actual work that goes on in Japan's immigration facilities is the business of picking off foreigners and treating them inhumanely. It flies in the face of the fundamentals of the International Covenants on Human Rights."

If there is any question about what the trajectory is for a society which holds foreign people's human rights in contempt, history provides enough answers.

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

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