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Ex-Japan immigration facility worker reveals how staff looked down on foreign detainees

A former employee of an immigration detention center holds a manual on coronavirus countermeasures at immigration facilities during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on May 5, 2021. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- A former employee of an immigration detention center in east Japan revealed that he felt as if some staff members "looked down on" foreign detainees by calling them by dehumanizing jargon referring to "bodies" taken under custody.

    There have been cases of foreign nationals being driven to death while detained at facilities, due to poor living conditions as well as an insufficient system for providing medical services.

    Following continuous cases of deaths at immigration facilities across Japan, the treatment of detainees has been raised as a major issue in Diet proceedings surrounding a proposal to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which the government on May 18 decided to withdraw due to strong opposition. The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with the former employee to shed light on how foreign nationals are treated in the confined spaces of detention centers.

    The man, who showed up to the interview wearing a sweater, said that he had felt something was "strange" about how detainees were treated at the immigration facility he worked at and how medical services were provided there.

    The first thing that caught him by surprise after he started to work there was that his colleagues called foreign detainees "gara," short for "migara" -- police jargon in Japan used to refer to the bodies of suspects taken into custody following an arrest amid criminal procedures. The former employee said, "My coworkers kept mentioning 'gara did so and so,' and I wondered what that was all about. It turned out they were talking about the detainees. When I asked a colleague its meaning, they told me that 'gara' probably came from the term 'migara'."

    The Mainichi Shimbun contacted the Immigration Services Agency's Enforcement Division to verify the facts, and received the response, "We do not tolerate or engage in such a way (when referring to foreign detainees)."

    Regarding the usage of the term "migara," Tadatoshi Shimomura, a lawyer and expert on criminal incidents, said, "The moment individuals are arrested and held in custody, living human beings become treated as objects. This shows that they are not being regarded as human beings. There is the conception that the moment individuals are arrested, authoritative power has the ability to deprive them of their freedom in its entirety and make it its own."

    Participants in a protest against revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act are seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

    The former employee also recalled another event. Although a foreigner detained at the center complained about inconvenient living conditions numerous times, staff that handled the case apparently appeared irritated and said, "Just leave that 'gara' be." The former employee said that he felt that his colleague was being condescending toward the detainee. However, as he continued hearing the jargon being used among staff at the immigration center, such as "The 'gara' got sick," and, "The new 'gara' is ... ," as a matter of routine, he said that his initial discomfort gradually diminished.

    There has also been a number of cases where detainees at immigration detention centers were subjected to violence by a group of numerous staff members. In January 2019, a video was revealed showing immigration officials restraining Deniz, a 42-year-old Kurd, at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center. The footage showed at least seven officials had pinned Deniz to the floor, although he showed resistance by saying "it hurts," and, "please stop." The officials handcuffed him with his arms twisted behind his back while straddling him, and yelled at him while poking his neck with their fingers. Deniz filed a lawsuit in August 2019 seeking compensation from the Japanese government, and the case is still in litigation.

    The former employee also recalled an unforgettable scene at the immigration center. One day, he saw fellow employees at the guard station watching and laughing over a video capturing the moment a detainee was being subdued. An official involved in the act had apparently said proudly, "I scored this one." The other staff present seemed to be amused too. The former employee said, "There was no way I could agree with what was happening. Although it wasn't everyone at the immigration center, there were people who looked down on the detainees."

    The former employee said what he fears the most is the consequences of immigration facilities' poor system of providing medical services. There were no full-time doctors at the six immigration detention facilities across Japan as of December 2019, according to documents by the Immigration Services Agency. Doctors visit the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau, which can accommodate 414 detainees -- the highest number in Japan -- four days a week for four hours at a time. Medical professionals visit the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center -- with 253, or the second greatest number of detainees -- five days a week for four hours each.

    "Even if detainees complained of feeling sick, there were many cases where they couldn't be examined right away by a doctor," said the former employee, showing inadequate handling of cases. In order to receive medical examinations, detainees must submit application papers containing descriptions of their symptoms to responsible officials, but there were apparently many instances where officials "did not respond immediately, saying to bring it in tomorrow."

    Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who died on March 6 at age 33 while being kept in detention at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau, also told a supporter, "I want to go to a hospital outside and get an IV drip, but the immigration officials won't bring me to one." The woman had only been able to receive an examination at an external hospital two days prior to her death.

    However, she had been brought to a psychiatrist, and she was suspected of feigning her illness. The psychiatrist who examined her wrote in a patient referral document that "it can be expected that her condition will get better if she is temporarily released." However, such facts were not revealed in the interim reports, and only made mention of "feigned illness."

    A video showing Kurd and Turkish national Deniz being subdued by immigration officials while detained at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center is being presented by lawyer Takeshi Ohashi at a meeting regarding the long-term detention of foreign nationals at the Members' Office Building of the House of Councillors on Jan. 23, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroaki Wada)

    The former immigration facility employee said, "Since the detention facility accommodates such a large number of people 24 hours a day, isn't it necessary to either permanently station staff capable of making medical decisions, or have a system allowing detainees to be examined immediately by a large external hospital?"

    The man also raised the issue of long-term detention in Japan, and said, "The longer individuals had been kept in detention, the more mentally exhausted they appeared."

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, as of the end of June 2019, 679 individuals had been detained at facilities for six months or longer. The number grew to over twice as much in the 3 1/2 years from December 2015, in which 290 detainees had been detained for half a year or more. There were also as many as 76 people who had been kept in detention for three years or longer.

    As a result of immigration centers actively granting provisional releases in order to avoid the creation of confined spaces amid the coronavirus pandemic, the total number of detainees saw an overall decrease at the end of 2020, with the number of those kept in detention for six months or longer standing at 207. However, these are measures taken due to special circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

    The Japanese government raised the dissolution of long-term detention at immigration facilities by swiftly deporting foreign nationals who do not have legal status to stay in the country as a reason for desiring to revise the immigration control law. However, the amendment bill drafted by the government did not establish an upper limit for detention periods.

    In the United States and Europe, there are many countries that have established limits to detention periods; specifically, 90 days after a final removal order in the United States, 90 days as a general rule in France, and six months as a general rule in Germany. Although South Korea does not have a specific legal limit for detention periods, permission from the Minister of Justice is needed every three months individuals overstay. By comparison, Japan has strikingly long detention periods.

    Perhaps due to such a poor environment, there is an increasing number of foreigners who die while they are kept in detention. According to the Immigration Services Agency, since 2007 there have been 17 cases where foreign detainees died in custody. Of these, 10 deaths were a result of sickness, five were suicides, and the cause is unknown for the remaining two. When breaking down cases by location, the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau saw six cases each, while the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau recorded two deaths. The Omura Immigration Center in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, the Fukuoka Regional Immigration Services Bureau, and the now-abolished Nishi-Nihon Immigration Center saw one case each.

    What kind of improvements should be seen regarding detentions at immigration facilities?

    Makoto Teranaka, lecturer of criminal policy theory at Bunkyo Gakuin University and an expert on immigration detention centers, raised a structural problem and said, "It is stipulated in the law that for prisons and other facilities under the jurisdiction of the justice ministry, directors in charge at the facilities are also responsible for medical services. Meanwhile, there are no clear provisions for immigration facilities, and in practice, medical decisions are made under the director's discretion. Most of these people don't hold medical licenses, and decisions on medical work requiring specialized knowledge are being made by those outside the profession."

    A provision to make it easier to secure doctors for immigration centers was included in the government-drafted bill to the immigration law. Immigration officials are also aiming to station full-time doctors at each facility, but a representative of the Immigration Services Agency's Enforcement Division said that "there are not that many people who come forward for the job."

    Teranaka said, "Care for mental symptoms is necessary for those in detention centers, such as treatment of trauma among refugees. Countries in Europe and the United States assign highly specialized staff, including those who are also able to communicate using various languages. As detainees are seized by public authority, the national government should be responsible for providing medical services."

    (Japanese original by Asako Kamihigashi and Yukinao Kin, Digital News Center)

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