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Japan gov't draft revision to immigration law criticized for undervaluing human rights

A woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right, looks back on her time in a detention facility. Even under temporary release, she told attorney Chie Komai, a supporter, that she was worried about the future, in Kanagawa Prefecture, in February 2021. (Mainichi/Takakazu Murakami)

TOKYO -- Draft revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that aim to solve issues of long-term detentions of foreign nationals at immigration facilities are to be deliberated in the current Diet session, but they have been criticized as undervaluing foreign nationals' rights.

    The draft revisions would establish a new system allowing foreign nationals served with deportation orders to live in society -- not in immigration facilities -- until repatriation. But it would also set limits on how many times they can apply for refugee status, demonstrating a strong stance that aims to promptly repatriate refugee applicants.

    "I didn't know how long my detention would last, and my mind, heart and body were exhausted. I didn't have any energy for a long time," said a 50-year-old woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo reflecting on the nearly three years she spent in a detention facility.

    Fearing religious persecution in her home country, she came to Japan in 2008. In 2018, she was placed in a detention center while applying for refugee status for the third time. When she protested for better treatment, she was subdued by facility staff; shocked, she tried to kill herself. This January, she was granted provisional release based on reasons including poor health, and is now staying at a facility operated by a refugee support organization in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

    Undocumented foreign nationals refusing to leave Japan and seeking residency status for reasons such as fear of persecution in their home countries or having family in Japan are increasingly subject to long detentions. According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, as of the end of June 2020, of 527 detainees, 232 had been detained for six months or longer, and 47 had been in detention for three years or more.

    Even when granted temporary release, their future is uncertain. One 61-year-old man from Sri Lanka has been living under temporary release for some 10 years. Fearing political persecution, he left his wife and children behind and came to Japan in 2008, but was charged with unlawful entry to the country. He was denied refugee status. Employment is not permitted under temporary release, but through acquaintances he has had work as a day laborer at construction sites. But he has been losing job opportunities recently due to the coronavirus pandemic, and his rent is in arrears and he is being pressured to vacate the residence. "I can't go back to my country, I can't work, and I can't be recognized as a refugee. I don't know what to do," he said.

    A man from Sri Lanka, who misses his family and hopes that one day he can live with them in Japan, is seen here in this photo taken in November 2020. (Mainichi/Asako Takeuchi)

    A senior Immigration Services Agency official explained that the law revision's goal is to "have people live in society as much as possible until their repatriation, and to shorten the retention period of those who object to their repatriation." Under current law, undocumented foreign nationals, as a rule, are placed in detention facilities from the time their deportation is decided until they are repatriated. But the legal amendment would establish a "supervisory measure" system in which people would be permitted to live outside of detention centers until repatriation. Relatives and supporters, serving as "supervisors," would report to authorities on the daily lives of the person awaiting repatriation.

    But the situation one is placed under remains as unstable as that of provisional release. They do not have health insurance, and once their deportation is decided, they are prohibited from working. Behind this arrangement is the thinking that it is unfair to provide undocumented foreign nationals with public assistance or permission to work. The senior Immigration Services Agency official said they do not expect the number of people eligible for the new "supervisory measure" will suddenly expand from those currently under provisional release.

    Chie Komai, an attorney well-versed in issues concerning foreign nationals, questioned the efficacy of the proposed system, saying, "Even if people can live in society, unless they have public assistance, private citizens will be held responsible for supervising them. If the private sector becomes unable to take on the responsibility, people under the 'supervisory measure' will be placed in detention facilities." She added, "There is room for arbitrary application of the new system, and detentions for indefinite periods of time will not be eliminated."

    The draft revision also fails to address criticism that the detention screening process lacks transparency. Ahead of the Cabinet approval of the draft revision, the opposition bloc submitted a counterproposal to the Diet. It included stipulations such as detentions requiring permits from the courts, and that the maximum length of detention be set at six months, based on "the global trend not to detain people."

    Michihiro Ishibashi of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) said, "We discussed a draft revision that would not be embarrassing internationally."

    The ruling and opposition parties are expected to clash during Diet deliberations.

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

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