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Lawyer sounds alarm over Japanese gov't proposals on foreigners facing long-term detention

Yuki Maruyama (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Earlier this year, the government's Expert Committee on Detention and Deportation released a set of policy recommendations related to the long-term detention of foreign citizens without proper residency statuses in Japan. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations' President Tadashi Ara quickly released a statement declaring that a host of those recommendations suffered "unignorable problems that could potentially be in breach of the rights recognized by ... the Constitution of Japan and international human rights covenants."

    Attorney Yuki Maruyama, chairwoman of the immigration issue investigation project team of the association's Human Rights Protection Committee, sat down recently with the Mainichi Shimbun to explain why the government body's recommendations are so problematic.

    Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

    * * * * *

    Mainichi: The expert committee's recommendations actually advocate creating substitutes for holding foreigners who have failed to obey a written deportation order at detention centers, to avoid long-term detentions. Where is the issue in that?

    Yuki Maruyama: Among the people in detention, there are many who have filed refugee recognition applications or lawsuits. On the one hand, the expert committee's recommendation that special permission to stay in Japan should be granted far more often than it is now is a welcome move. However, the recommendations also contain a serious problem -- namely the idea that people who refuse to be deported should be legally penalized.

    There are in fact people born or raised in Japan who, because of their parents' situation, don't have a proper residency status and who have been issued written deportation orders. For Japan to forcibly deport children whose basic life foundations are in this country, who can't speak any other language but Japanese, whose friends are all here, is to treat children's rights far too lightly. To punish children for refusing to go back to their country of origin is the same as treating them as nothing but their parents' accessories.

    M: One of the motivations behind the Justice Ministry setting up the expert committee was to protect the immigration system from abuse, such as people repeatedly filing refugee status applications to avoid deportation. Is that not so?

    YM: Foreigners abusing the system is not the root of the problem. The main issue is that the immigration authorities are running a system bereft of fairness and transparency. Japan is a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, meaning it is committed to recognizing people in need as refugees and protecting them.

    In 2018, the other Group of Seven wealthy nations -- the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada -- granted over 30% of applications for refugee status or complimentary protection (protections equivalent to refugee status granted to some people who do not meet the standards set by the refugee convention). Japan granted just 0.5% of such applications. Statistics from 2010 to 2018 show that some 20% of those granted refugee status in Japan, and 40% of those given special residency status for humanitarian reasons, had previously been given written deportation orders.

    M: Regarding Japan's immigration detention centers, detainees have protested against ill treatment and long-term internment. And not a few have launched hunger strikes. In June 2019, a Nigerian detainee died of starvation. What is your view on this?

    YM: For Japan, with its low birth rate and aging society, foreigners are very valuable as workers. If Japan continues to insist on thinking of itself as an economic superpower, seeing foreigners as potential criminals who may disrupt public order, and building policy that disregards their basic foundations of life, it risks losing the trust of other nations.

    The reason there are so many detainees in immigration agency facilities who refuse to go back to their countries, despite Japan having taken their freedom and their ability to work, is that they are very likely to suffer extremely serious consequences if deported. They should not be casually accused of "abusing" the immigration system. The expert committee's call for consideration of some exception to the ban on deporting refugee applicants is a very big problem as well.

    M: So, what reforms to immigration should we start with?

    YM: In accordance with Japan's ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Covenants on Human Rights, the government should insert provisions respecting the rights of foreign children and of families to stay together into Japan's Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

    In 2009, the Justice Ministry revised its guidelines on granting special permission to stay in Japan, and indicated it planned to give consideration to foreigners living with and supporting their biological children for a considerable period of time. However, things have not always followed these lines in practice. In fact, Japan has been harder on foreigners in recent years. The immigration authorities do not record a foreigner's reasons for living in Japan illicitly, leaving anyone seeking to stay feeling that it is impossible to plead their case.

    If respect for human rights was made explicit, and transparency increased, then irrational long detentions should decrease.

    Meanwhile, international travel restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic have made deportations difficult. Japan's Immigration Services Agency has increased temporary releases for detention center internees to avoid the "three Cs" (confined spaces, crowded places, and close contact -- conditions conducive to viral transmission). Even before coronavirus, it had been pointed out that center staff were getting overloaded, and the pandemic may trigger restricting detentions to cases where it is truly needed.

    (Interviewed by Hiromichi Yoshitomi, Opinion Group)

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