For some foreign parents who have been separated from their children due to divorce from their Japanese spouses, the expiration of their spousal visa makes matters worse as intervention by immigration officials can easily sever their ties with their kids.
Supporters of these foreign parents say immigration authorities often view their visitation rights as not being enough to permit their continued residence in the country and issue deportation orders, thereby depriving children of access to one of their parents.
Md Shahidul Huq, a 42-year-old Bangladeshi freelance photographer, and a 28-year-old man from Mali were detained at immigration facilities for extended periods as they faced deportation orders after their spousal visas expired.
They have been provisionally released and are now seeking revocation of the deportation orders so they can stay in Japan and see their daughters again. In principle, those who are deported back to their home countries can’t re-enter Japan for five years.
Both of them say that before their visa problems arose they had seen their children regularly even after divorce.
Huq, who has lived in Japan for 23 years, said his ex-wife in Kochi Prefecture, who has custody of their 7-year-old daughter, refused to allow him to see the girl after he asked her to transfer custody of the child to him in order to solve his visa problem.
“The immigration authorities turned down my application for a long-term resident visa because I didn’t have custody of my child,” he said.
“They also rejected my application for a business manager visa I filed as a last resort to stay in Japan. My life has been completely messed up” due to the visa problem.
The Bangladeshi, who was detained for about a year while facing the deportation order, says he had paid alimony and seen his daughter every three months in Kochi until about three years ago.
“In my country, it’s natural for parents to meet children even after divorce. Since I haven’t seen my daughter for a long time, I’m worried if she has forgotten about me,” he said.
“Children need both parents. One parent cannot give them enough counsel,” Huq said. “If I’m deported back to Bangladesh, I’d be worried about my daughter to death.”
The Mali father, who did not want his name publicized, said his former wife in Kanagawa Prefecture stopped allowing him to contact their 3-year-old daughter after his application for a long-term resident visa was denied and he was detained at an immigration facility in October 2010. The detention lasted half a year.
Before he was locked up, the man, who had been a foundry worker, met with his former wife and their child twice a month after the couple divorced in 2009.
“Probably my former wife wishes I would be forced out of Japan, but once I return to Mali, I cannot see my daughter and both the kid and I will suffer,” he said.
“Every child wants to know what his or her parent is like. I believe the system in Japan that prevents exchanges between parents and children should be changed.”
Jotaro Kato, a representative of the Asian People’s Friendship Society, which is offering support to the two men, said that compared with mothers, foreign fathers who don’t have custody of their children tend to be put in a disadvantageous position in applying for a long-term resident visa following the expiration of their spousal visa.
“Generally speaking, divorced foreigners who had been married to a Japanese for three years are considered eligible to apply for a long-term resident visa,” Kato said.
“Compared with fathers without child custody, it would be easier for mothers to acquire such a visa if they mainly take care of children who have Japanese nationality after divorce.”
Among such foreign fathers, many white-collar workers can continue to stay in Japan on a working visa, but the status of blue-collar workers tends to become unstable after their spousal visa expires, Kato said.
What could make the situation even more complicated is changes in the residence management system under the revised Immigration Control Act that will be enforced in July for spousal visa holders, Kato and other supporters of foreign residents say.
As a stricter way of cracking down on bogus marriages, foreign spouses of Japanese nationals could lose their residency status if they fail to “conduct activities normally carried out by spouses” for six months.
At present, spousal visas are effective up to three years, but after the change takes place foreigners divorced or separated from their Japanese spouses could have their residence status revoked even before the expiration of their visa.
However, according to the Justice Ministry, victims of domestic violence and those engaged in mediation over custody of a child have “justifiable reason” for not engaging in spousal activities and are treated as exceptions.
A ministry official said if foreign and Japanese parents are engaged in mediation over child visitation rights, the authorities have no clear-cut standards and decide whether each case merits an exception to the revocation of residence status based on a comprehensive judgement.
Ongoing negotiations over visitation rights would be “just one factor” in examining whether to nullify the residence status of foreign parents, the official said.
Masako Suzuki, an attorney at Tokyo Public Law Office’s section on legal assistance for foreigners, said that because Japan follows the sole custody system, the status of noncustodial parents “tends to be weak” and that judgments by immigration authorities “merely reflect” such a situation.
“Japanese former spouses who don’t want to have their kids see the other parent often exploit the immigration authorities’ disregard for visitation rights in examining foreign parents’ residence status,” Suzuki said.
Immigration officials also suspect that some foreigners claim visitation rights “just as an excuse to continue to stay in Japan,” she added.
The lawyer lamented the situation in which ties between parents and children can be forcibly cut by government intervention and said she expects the revision last May of the Civil Code to have a positive influence on the matter.
The legal change underlines the need to decide on visitations when parents have an amicable divorce, she said.