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1st known virus cluster at Japan immigration detention center spreads to 40% of detainees

The Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, the fourth floor of which is used as a detention facility, is seen in the capital's Minato Ward on Feb. 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Asako Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- A coronavirus cluster at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau's detention center in the capital's Minato Ward, the first at a detention facility for foreign nationals who have lost their residence status, has spread to over 40% of detainees.

    As of March 3, 58 detainees at the facility had been infected since the outbreak in February, with additional staff infections bringing the total number of cases to 64. An infected detainee spoke with the Mainichi Shimbun by telephone, and gave insight into what is going on inside the facility.

    On the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau's fourth floor, 105 men and 27 women (as of Feb. 18) are kept in separate blocks, and detained in individual and shared rooms. The infections spread in the men's section of the detention facilities. On Feb. 14, two detainees and one member of staff complained of feeling unwell, and on Feb. 15 five people including those three tested positive for the coronavirus.

    The bureau conducted polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests on all detainees, and despite taking measures such as splitting individuals who tested positive and negative for the virus into separate blocks, it still spread. Although there have been no serious cases, two people with underlying health issues have been sent to the hospital in accordance with instructions from a public health center. On March 3, all of the female detainees were moved to another immigration facility.

    Detainees have been spending an anxious time in the enclosed environment of the bureau. At the end of January, a man from the Middle East in his 40s complained of a sore throat and other symptoms, and on Feb. 11 he noticed he couldn't taste his food. He told a member of staff he might have the coronavirus, and that they should take care he didn't spread it, but a facility worker said it was "fine," and didn't appear to take the situation seriously. However, he remained in poor health and on Feb. 17 he tested positive.

    The man was kept in a separate tatami room and was visited three to four times a day. Staff in protective clothing would measure his temperature and blood oxygen saturation. He had a high temperature that at one point topped 38 C, and he also experienced days where he would cough, have trouble breathing, and felt unable to move due to fatigue.

    One of the detainees' rooms is seen in this image from the website of the Immigration Services Agency of Japan.

    At the block for people who tested positive, he could hear other detainees coughing painfully. When he would lie down, he'd worry whether anyone would realize if something happened to him. He was given one mask each day, but the room had no alcohol disinfectant, and if he needed it, staff would have to bring it

    Because the man had taken part in activism against his country's government, he feared for his safety and moved from country to country before arriving in Japan about 10 years ago. He applied for recognition of refugee status twice, but was rejected both times. There were also periods when he was allowed to temporarily leave detention under policies allowed by the bureau, but he hasn't been outside for about three years. "It's very hard and sad. The cluster here hasn't really been on the news either, and it feels like people don't really care about us," he said.

    So how did the infections spread inside the facility? In spring 2020, when the virus started spreading across Japan, the Ministry of Justice entered talks with experts to discuss how to handle the situation. Subsequently, a prevention manual was released by the Immigration Services Agency of Japan in May 2020.

    The manual stresses that there is a need to avoid the three C's of closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings and authorizes the temporary release of 400 to 500 individuals detained at the bureaus, among other measures, which brought the number of detainees at the facility down to 132.

    Regarding the cluster that developed at the facility, the immigration services agency said, "We responded to it in accordance with the manual, and are following instructions from public health centers and doctors. But there is a need to investigate this case, and we intend to proceed with deliberations including whether the manual needs to be reassessed."

    According to a statement by Minister of Justice Yoko Kamikawa at a March 3 House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting and other sources, the infections began on the facility's third floor. While there were suspicions the virus may have spread through vents, an investigation found no issue with them. The chances of the virus having been brought into the facility by new detainees are reportedly also low, as they are isolated for two weeks. Detainees' movements were also restricted, and officials are probing whether immigration bureau staff spread the infections.

    A demonstration against the detention of foreign nationals is held outside the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau on Feb. 19, 2020, in this image provided by a participant.

    The risk of a cluster at an immigration facility had been highlighted some time before. In April 2020, a message from the president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations called for the lifting of detention measures to the greatest extent possible. The text read, "There are more than a few long-term detainees with underlying health conditions who have not been able to fully receive treatment, and there are concerns that if infections emerged it would directly endanger people's lives."

    Foreign nationals without residency status are detained at immigration facilities from the time of hearings on whether they should be ejected from the country until their actual deportation, if such a ruling is handed down. The majority of people subject to deportation measures leave Japan themselves, but individuals who fear they could be put in danger, or who have family in Japan, sometimes refuse to leave and spend extended periods in detention.

    Japan's refugee recognition standards are harsh when compared to other countries -- in 2019, just 44 of the 10,375 people applying for refugee recognition were granted it. Courts are not involved in their detention, and there is no limit on how long they can be there.

    In a move to solve the issue of protracted detentions, the Cabinet in February approved amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that include measures to allow detainees to live outside the facilities. The amendments do not include limits on the length of detention, and they do not call for a review of criteria for refugee status, leading to assertions that they make light of human rights.

    (Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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