The Quiet Desperation of Refugees in Japan

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The Quiet Desperation of Refugees in Japan

Anger at long-term detention is fueling a hunger strike at the East Japan Immigration Center.

The Quiet Desperation of Refugees in Japan

Foreign residents rest in front of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Tokyo, May 25, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

An estimated 100 of the approximately 300 detainees at the East Japan Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki, are involved in a hunger strike that began on May 10. Strikers are demanding an end to exceptionally long detention periods — now typically exceeding a year — and a relaxation of the provisional release system, which places severe and impracticable restrictions on the lives of temporarily released detainees. Detainee anger is aggravated by the isolation, lack of information, and alleged medical neglect experienced at the detention center, where many long-term detainees suffer from deteriorating physical and mental health.

Hunger strikes have been occurring sporadically at Japan’s detention centers, sometimes with tragic consequences. On June 24, a Nigerian man died as a result of his hunger strike at the Omura Detention Center in Nagasaki prefecture. The ongoing hunger strike at the East Japan Immigration Center is being monitored by Ushiku no Kai, a nongovernmental organization that supports and advocates on behalf of foreign detainees. Kimiko Tanaka, leader of Ushiku no Kai, explains that the number of striking detainees fluctuates as the Immigration Bureau tries to control the situation by approving several weeks of provisional release to detainees who agree stop their hunger strike. “But after two weeks they are detained again. The people this has happened to are, honestly, incredibly angry,” Tanaka says.

Detainees at the East Japan Immigration Center are migrants who have refused to be repatriated. Most are asylum seekers or visa overstayers, with the majority hailing from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 2018, Japan accepted only 42 out of a total of 10,493 refugee applications. Given these odds, many applicants would welcome the opportunity to seek asylum in a third country, but few nations seem willing to take on refugees from a country as wealthy as Japan. In practice the only way out for detainees is repatriation. But fearing persecution in their home countries, many stay in Japan, cycling through periods of prolonged detention and precarious livelihoods on provisional release.

Earlier this year, Ushiku no Kai compiled a report on detention facilities in Japan in response to a questionnaire issued by the Committee on Migrant Workers at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The findings of the report are based on regular visitations to the East Japan Immigration Center by Ushiku no Kai members, as well as a survey of 265 detainees conducted in 2018.

According to the report, long-term detention is increasingly normalized. Seventy-seven percent of survey respondents had been detained for more than a year, with 36 percent detained for more than two years. Detainees with a guarantor and the means for a deposit averaging $1,000 to $2,000 can apply for provisional release. There is little transparency on how applications are evaluated, and they are rejected with increasing frequency. According to the report, 80 percent of surveyed detainees have had their applications rejected at least three times.

Successful applicants face major restrictions while released: they cannot work, open a bank account, get a phone, or leave their area of residence without permission. Many cannot afford not to work, meaning that adhering to the conditions of provisional release is almost impossible in practice. “It is an utterly unrealistic restriction,” says Tanaka. “In terms of human rights, I think it is a serious violation to deprive someone of their ability to work.” Those on provisional release often find themselves back inside detention centers for violating the strict terms.

Uncertainty, fear, and confusion characterize refugees’ experiences. While in theory detainees have a right to communication with the outside world and the Immigration Bureau is required to provide information about the circumstances of their detention and status of their applications, in practice access to information is severely limited. Expensive payphones and 30-minute visitations are the only connections to the outside world. Ushiku no Kai’s report states that detainees are generally deprived access to information about things such as the legality of their detainment, the duration of detention, their rights to communication, and legal avenues to contesting detention.

“They don’t know how to get out, they don’t know how long they’re going to be there, they don’t know what the steps are to take in order to get out. So there’s a lot of panic, there’s a lot of fear,” explains Professor David Slater, a cultural anthropologist at Sophia University in Tokyo who leads a research project and support program for refugees in Japan. Slater and his students record video interviews with former detainees.

In an interview transcript shared with The Diplomat, a refugee from Nigeria explains how detainees rely on each other to understand the immigration bureaucracy: “You know when many newcomers come in, they don’t know anything about the procedures. They don’t know that they have to apply for provisional release. They don’t know about guarantors, places to stay, and all that. So those who know the system can teach the newcomers.” The refugee says that while detainees can ask for information from immigration officers, “usually the officers do not take the initiative to teach anything to the detainees.”

At the East Japan Immigration Center, four to five people are detained together in small rooms with strangers from totally different cultures. They have no access to mobile phones or the internet, and a television is the only provision to pass the time. Lack of privacy and the stress of long-term incarceration leads to ongoing tensions between detainees. In his interview with Slater’s research group, the Nigerian refugee describes in detail how detention center staff make sure that detainees do not have access to anything with which they could harm themselves, such as long cords or metal cutlery. “Everyone is depressed,” he recounts.

Ushiku no Kai’s report highlights the apparent link between prolonged detention and mental and physical health problems, including a greater prevalence of heart disease, high blood pressure, and organ failures. The report accuses the Immigration Bureau of institutional medical neglect, referencing as an example the refusal of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau to send an ailing Kurdish detainee to hospital, a controversy previously reported on by The Japan Times. So far there are at least 15 known cases of foreign nationals dying while being transported or detained by authorities.

In April Japan introduced a new visa for unskilled laborers as part of a strategy to address the aging nation’s labor shortage with greater numbers of foreign workers. Meanwhile, treatment of asylum seekers continues to get harsher. Lawyers have noted that those who are caught working on provisional release are now being punished with a minimum of three years and three months of detention. “Japan really needs foreign laborers,” says Tanaka. “It is a completely contradictory policy.”

She hopes for more flexibility in the provisional release system: “There are people who have been diligently renewing the provisional release for a long time. They should be given visas so that they can live their lives properly in Japan.”

Tanaka says that she cannot predict how the hunger strike at the East Japan Immigration Center will develop. “Of course, the Immigration Bureau wants them to end the hunger strike and get back to normal operations. Unfortunately, at the moment it does not seem like this will be the case.”

Sakari Mesimaki is a freelance writer and anthropology master’s student at Helsinki University.