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Japan's immigration issues

Julian Ryall Tokyo
May 18, 2017

Foreign nationals detained at an immigration center in Nagoya are demanding better conditions and food but - most importantly - they want authorities to tackle their cases more swiftly. Julian Ryall reports.

Japan Flüchtlinge
Image: Picture alliance/NurPhoto/A. Di Ciommo

Over 20 foreign nationals detained at an immigration center in the Japanese city of Nagoya have started a hunger strike to demand better conditions and for their cases to be processed more rapidly.  

The hunger strike began on Monday, May 15, six days after detainees at another immigration facility in Tokyo launched a similar protest and following the earlier death of a Vietnamese man in custody.

Yet the Japanese people are either largely unaware of the protesters' campaigns or indifferent to their fates.

The detainees in Nagoya are all male and include citizens of Iran, Turkey and Vietnam. One of them has been held at the facility for as long as 11 months. The protesters in Tokyo include Chinese and Burmese nationals.

"Some of them say they are being discriminated against because they are foreign and one of the men being held in Tokyo has been there for two years," said Kaoru Yamaguchi, who heads the campaigns unit in the Tokyo office of Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy outfit.

Illegal residents

The majority of the detainees are foreign nationals whose visas expired and they are therefore in Japan illegally. Some others arrived without the appropriate documentation and were immediately arrested. The rest have been convicted of crimes and are awaiting deportation after completing their sentences.

A number of the detainees have applied for asylum in Japan and are awaiting a decision on their cases, although Amnesty believes such individuals should not be in detention facilities while they are waiting for a ruling.

Japan has been the target of criticism from human rights groups that claim it does not do enough to assist individuals from countries and regions affected by war or civil strife. In the 22 years up to 2004, they point out, an average of 15 people were granted asylum per year, a figure that is 0.2 percent of those who applied for the status.

In 2013, Japan's Ministry of Justice (MOJ) approved only six asylum seekers' applications for refugee status out of 3,777 cases (0.1 percent approval rate), the lowest number in 16 years. In 2014, the number of people granted asylum rose to 11; the figure climbed to 27 in 2015 and 28 in 2016 - accounting for about 0.4 percent of all applications received.

In comparison, the percentage of people granted asylum in countries like Germany and Canada comes to around 40 percent of the total. The Japanese government has responded to the criticism by relaxing some regulations.

Slow judicial process

There have also been complaints about thousands of asylum seekers spending years going through administrative and judicial appeals with little to no hope of refugee status awaiting them at the end of the process.

Asked why it takes as long as two years to sort out an immigration case, Yamaguchi says, "That is what we want to know as well."

One claim by the MOJ is that if the detainees refuse to return to their home country, they cannot be forced to leave Japan. That then leaves them in detention and in limbo.

Japan government orders time off for workers

But the slow pace of the legal system here is not the only problem. The hunger strikers in Nagoya are also protesting about their dire living conditions.

Often five people are required to share an eight "tatami" mat room, with one "tatami" traditionally measuring 88cm by 176cm. They have no access to computers or mobile phones and need to purchase pre-paid phone cards if they want to call out of the detention center. They have an exercise area but have no view outside the facility.

One of the biggest complaints is over food. Each detainee receives a bento box meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and while the authorities try to meet the dietary requirements of different religions and medical complaints, the meals are monotonous and lacking in nourishment, detainees have complained to Amnesty.

There have also been reports of detainees being mistreated or pressurized to drop complaints, although Yamaguchi says it is impossible to verify the accusations.

Looking away

There have been, however, at least 13 deaths in immigration centers since 2006. The most recent case was in March, when a 47-year-old Vietnamese man named Nguyen The Huan died of a stroke at the East Japan Immigration Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

Nguyen had been complaining of headaches and neck pain for a week and on the day of his death, guards assumed he was asleep in his cell. When he was finally checked, six hours later, Nguyen was unconscious and not breathing. He could not be resuscitated.

The death of Nguyen barely made to the Japanese newspapers and even less has been reported about the two detention center hunger strikes - something that Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, blames on the tendency in Japanese society to "look away from anything that is uncomfortable to see."

"The media understands that a story like this is not very attractive to a mass audience because these are foreigners and not many Japanese have foreign friends who are in a detention center," he told DW.

"But there is also simply a lack of focus on human rights issues because people do not like to think about negative things or taboos," he said. "News here tends to be about lighter things, not inquiring, and I think that has become more pronounced in recent years."

But he stressed that Japan's declining birth rate and ageing population means that the nation will sooner or later be confronted by the issue of large-scale immigration. And when that happens, Japanese society will no longer be able to turn away from the positives and negatives associated with such major change.

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