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Iranian permanent resident held for 19 hours at Japan airport amid virus fears

The Iranian man's residence card is seen in this partially modified photo. (Mainichi)

An Iranian man in his 50s with permanent residency in Japan who lives in the Kansai region in the western part of this country was reportedly detained for a total of 19 hours from March 24 after returning from a business trip to Iran.

According to the man, he was tested for infection with the novel coronavirus before then having his residency permits inspected by the Immigration Services Agency of Japan's Narita Airport District Immigration Office. He was forced to spend 19 hours overnight under its jurisdiction without being offered food or water, and when the ordeal was over the authorities sought a total of 60,000 yen in fees for use of the room he was detained in and other costs.

Expressing his anger at the treatment to the Mainichi Shimbun, he said, "I've lived in Japan for a total of about 20 years, but I'd never been treated like this before. It was discrimination against me as a person from a certain country."

The man first came to Japan from Iran in 1991, and later married a local woman. They lived for a period in Iran, but came back to Japan and started up a business in the Kansai region while living with family.

His business trip this year began in the Iranian capital of Tehran from mid-February, with a return date set for mid-March. But disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus meant he couldn't get a flight back, and he finally managed to leave Iran on a plane on March 23. At around 5 p.m. on March 24, he landed at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo.

The number of confirmed novel coronavirus infections in Iran currently exceeds 30,000 people. Japan's Ministry of Justice is refusing entry to people coming from certain parts of Iran, and the same controls are in place toward people entering from China, Italy and other regions.

Passengers on a flight from South Korea are seen being briefed about the two-week self-quarantine period at Narita Airport, on March 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

But the ministry also reserves the right to exclude people from such measures in exceptional circumstances. According to the Immigration Services Agency's adjudication division, having a Japanese spouse generally constitutes exceptional circumstances. With this being the case, the man should have had no issues being allowed to enter Japan.

But people traveling to Japan from certain parts of Iran are obliged to go to quarantine services upon landing and take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for potential coronavirus infection.

The Iranian man too said he was told to secure accommodation close to the airport and wait there until the PCR results were to come back the following morning. He made a reservation at a hotel, and took the test along with other foreign and Japanese nationals.

Then he proceeded to immigration checks at the airport as normal. But while other arrivals with Japanese or foreign passports were permitted to enter, he was instructed by an official to go into a separate room.

There, he was asked to produce his passport, his residence card showing that he has permanent residency, his business card, his wife's mobile phone number and even her family registry details. He complied with the requests.

His wife received a call from immigration officials, and was reportedly asked for the dates of birth of each family member and her husband's schedule in Iran. The man has traveled to Iran once or twice each year for work. It was his first time being put under scrutiny over it for an extended period, but he thought that because the officials were able to make contact with his wife, he would be released soon.

Nevertheless, he was told to wait in a small room about the size of six tatami mats in the deep of the night, without being given sufficient explanation. He asked if they would at least put him in a separate space from another Iranian man who was being kept after getting off the same flight, but was refused on the grounds that there were no other rooms.

In this Feb. 12, 2020 file photo, an immigration agency worker puts up a sign asking foreigners who have traveled to the Chinese provinces of Hubei and Zhejiang to notify an immigration officer at Narita Airport. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

The space he was given had a bed and a sofa, and the floor was strewn with dead cockroaches. They were watched from outside the room by security officials, and leaving it for any reason other than to use the bathroom was prohibited.

The man asked for something to eat or drink as he'd had nothing since noon of March 24. But an immigration official reportedly told him that in Japan "people can drink tap water, so use the tap in your room."

The man was kept under those conditions until around 8 a.m. on March 25, when he made more desperate demands, and eventually he was allowed to buy some bread and other food from a nearby shop.

On the same morning he also called quarantine officials to be told that his PCR test had come back negative for the coronavirus. He asked again to be allowed to leave, but he was made to wait longer in the room, and was finally allowed to enter Japan at midday. Reportedly no explanation at all was provided as to why he had been kept under inspection for such an extended period.

Additionally, when he was allowed entry to Japan, a man who appeared to be an immigration official sought payment from him of 60,000 yen in total for use of the room, security costs and other expenses. But the man refused to pay.

On the night of March 25, with permission from Narita Airport authorities, he flew domestically from Narita to Kansai International Airport in western Japan. He drove home alone from the airport in a car arranged by his family. Upon his entry into Japan he had been asked to remain in a designated location for 14 days of self-isolation, which he is spending at home.

The man said, "Coronavirus countermeasures are important, but it's discrimination to lock up a foreign national with permanent residency in a room for a long time without sufficient explanation. I've always loved Japan, and worked hard to integrate into my community, but I feel sad. Isn't this the country of 'omotenashi' hospitality?"

On being put in a room in close proximity with another person for an extended period of time, he said, "If either of us had tested positive for the coronavirus, what would have happened if we infected the other? There wasn't really any consideration for us."

Responding to a request for comment, the Immigration Services Agency's Narita Airport District Immigration Office said, "We cannot make comments on individual cases, as they include private information."

Regarding the man's claim that he was asked to pay some 60,000 yen for costs associated with his detainment, the office said, "Generally, if a foreign national cannot enter the country through the airport and stays here for a temporary period, the cost burden is passed on to the airline company."

(Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Integrated Digital News Center)

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