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Japan looks to resolve problem of long-term detention of foreigners

Protesters voicing opposition against long-term detention of foreign nationals in immigration facilities are shown in this photo taken on Oct. 8, 2019. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- A government panel of experts revealed a new proposal on June 15 to urge foreign nationals who are residing unlawfully in Japan to voluntarily leave the country, while also implementing a penalty system for those failing to obey, as part of a scheme to dissolve the long-term detention of foreigners.

The Immigration Services Agency will enter discussions for revising the current immigration law as well as other structural changes, based on a final report to be submitted to the Minister of Justice as early as July.

The panel of experts is administrated under the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, and consists of 10 members including university professors, lawyers, doctors, and refugee supporters. The panel has discussed immigration detention and deportation matters since October 2019 while listening to the opinions of related parties and inspecting immigration facilities.

The new proposal takes a carrot-and-stick approach in order to ensure its effectiveness in resolving the issue of long-term immigration detention of foreign nationals.

The proposal demanded the establishment of a new system where in the case that an individual who has been issued a deportation order took swift moves to leave the country, the individual would be granted special permission to re-enter Japan within a shorter time frame than the current designated period, considering their resident status and family relations. The panel also raised the creation of a system of penalties to be applied to those who do not obey orders including requests to prepare to leave the country within a certain period of time, as a matter to be discussed.

Regarding provisional release from detention centers granted due to health reasons and other factors, the panel raised plans to clarify the conditions and criteria used by the Immigration Services Agency when it decides those who are eligible, as well as plans to disclose the specific reasons to individuals who were not permitted provisional release.

Furthermore, the panel put forward the implementation of a new system of "alternatives to immigration detention" where foreign nationals who do not have a lawful status of residence do not need to be detained in immigration centers until deportation, in consideration of factors such as whether they filed for recognition of refugee status or situations concerning family members who live in Japan. The proposal also included the establishment of penalties against those who attempt to flee from the supervision of immigration facilities while they are on provisional release, as such cases are currently increasing in number.

In addition, there is a rule that authorities cannot deport those who are applying for asylum in Japan, which the expert panel considers is being taken advantage of. Therefore, the panel also raised the necessity to discuss regulations for exempting individuals from deportation relief in scenarios where an unlawful foreign national repeatedly applies for asylum with the same claims.

As the panel's proposal raised a new system of "alternatives to immigration detention" as a topic to be further discussed, which loosens the doctrine of mandatory detention of all unlawful residents, high-ranking officials of the Immigration Services Agency also expect to dissolve long-term detention. On the other hand, supporters of foreign nationals and others have raised criticism over the proposed system of penalties against those who do not obey authorities.

Although a large majority of foreign nationals who are issued deportation orders return to their respective countries on their own accord, those who wish to avoid deportation and continue residing in Japan -- as they have developed a base after living in the country for a long time, among other reasons -- are in principle placed in immigration facilities for an indefinite duration. This leads to the prolongation of detention periods. As of the end of 2019, of the 1,054 foreign nationals detained in immigration facilities at 17 nationwide locations, 462 individuals had been staying there for six months or longer, according to the Immigration Services Agency.

Cases of hunger strikes demanding provisional release have also continuously emerged. A Nigerian man in his 40s died of starvation at Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture in southwestern Japan in June 2019.

Accordingly, setting a limit for detention periods was one of the core points of discourse for the panel of experts. The panel shelved the implementation of a time limit during this discourse, considering that foreign nationals can be liberated from detention if they agree to return to their countries. However, the panel incorporated a new system where in the case that the detention period of a foreign national reaches a certain amount of time, the individual will be placed under scrutiny for whether it is necessary to keep detaining them in immigration facilities.

"Alternatives to immigration detention" system has also been added as a topic to be discussed, as scenarios where foreign nationals file lawsuits regarding deportation and cases where young children are raised in Japan can be envisioned, and it can be predicted that a certain number of foreign nationals will begin to lead their lives in Japanese society. The balance between supervision and support is expected to become an impending challenge.

Meanwhile, a group of lawyers who discuss detention and deportation issues and support for detained foreign nationals held a press conference on June 15 in response to the government panel's proposal. The group viewed the potential establishment of a penalty system and other proposals as problematic and commented, "This debate seems to have been done with the prior intention of excluding foreign nationals. It is very disappointing that there was only a drastically small amount of discussion regarding taking in and liberating those in detention centers. The panel is not seriously considering why the detention of such individuals is necessary."

(Japanese original by Takakazu Murakami and Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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