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160 lawyers form Japan-wide network to improve situation for foreign detainees

Lawyer Chie Komai, left, gives the joint representatives' statement at the inaugural general meeting of lawyer's group "Nyukan wo kaeru! Bengoshi network" (Change immigration! Lawyers' network) at the Members' Office Building of the House of Councillors in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Dec. 14, 2021. Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki is seen seated at right. (Mainichi/Asako Kamihigashi)

TOKYO -- Lawyers across Japan joined together on Dec. 14 to create a new group to tackle issues involving the Immigration Services Agency of Japan's detention of foreign nationals.

    The group, "Nyukan wo kaeru! Bengoshi network" (Change immigration! Lawyers' network) includes some 160 attorneys from across the country. As well as lawyers with experience handling cases involving foreign nationals, the group includes those with backgrounds in poverty, labor, and other issues. Its long-term aim is to improve the immigration service system and management through political lobbying and activism.

    In March 2021, Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau detainee Wishma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan national, died without being given adequate medical care. According to the Immigration Services Agency, 17 foreign nationals have died in detention since 2007.

    Broken down by facility, the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau have each had six deaths, two people have died at the Nagoya bureau, and there has been one death each at the Omura Immigration Center in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, the Fukuoka Regional Immigration Services Bureau in the city of Fukuoka, and the now-closed Nishi-Nihon Immigration Center in west Japan.

    Additionally, preliminary figures as of the end of December 2020 show some 2,440 foreign nationals were given temporary release from detention. But under agency conditions they cannot work or even get health insurance, and many of them lead lives of hardship as a result. Under such circumstances, Shoichi Ibusuki, who represents Wishma's bereaved family, and like-minded lawyers called for the establishment of the group as the issues require cooperation of attorneys across Japan.

    At its inaugural general meeting, lawyers from as far as Hokkaido in the north and the southwestern Kyushu region reported on the current situations facing foreign nationals. Four lawyers were appointed joint representatives of the group: Ibusuki, Chie Komai, Masahito Nakai and Koichi Inamori.

    "To ensure a case like Wishma's never happens again, we must fight with the help of many citizens. Let's all work together to get new laws complying with the Constitution and international law, and proper amendments."

    In principle, the Immigration Services Agency has a zero-tolerance policy under which it detains any person who does not have a residency status. There is no mandated limit for how long an individual can be held, and detentions are not subject to judicial review.

    Furthermore, proposed amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that the government submitted to the Diet earlier in 2021 included provisions that would have allowed the forced repatriation of immigration rule violators. The bill was lambasted both inside and outside Japan for failing to consider people who cannot return to their home countries for various reasons, and for falling short of international human rights standards. The government withdrew the bill in May.

    But inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party there are said to be moves to resubmit the amendments. The lawyers' network says it intends to fight the move, and plans improvements to the immigration system. It says it will also actively put out statements to the people and the news media.

    (Japanese original by Asako Kamihigashi, Digital News Center)

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