Most foreigners in Japan know the horror of waiting for a residency permit or visa. A few hours in the queue at the Shinagawa immigration office can feel like a lifetime.
But for Iranian national Jamal Saberi, “waiting a lifetime” has become more than just a figure of speech. For nearly 10 years he has been pleading with the Japanese authorities to grant him asylum or refugee status.
“I am tired. . . . I need an answer, but they won’t give me one,” he says.
Waiting without end is not the only form of suffering Saberi has had to endure since he came to Japan. On three separate occasions he has been incarcerated in immigration detention centers — a total of two years behind bars — an experience that has more than left its mark on his once-healthy body.
Saberi first came to Japan in 1990 as a fit 23-year-old. A semi-pro soccer player in his home country of Iran, he prided himself on his athleticism.
Saberi is 43 now, but has the ailments of a man twice that age. He is partially deaf, has an arrhythmic heart and his hands shake.
“It was the stress — the stress of being in the detention center. Of never knowing when you can leave, never knowing when you will be deported,” he says.
Periods spent in the solitary punishment cell were especially traumatic for Saberi. It was an ordeal he had to undergo several times.
“The punishment cell was very small — only 3 by 2 meters — and had no windows. The lights were always on and I was being watched by a camera the whole time,” he explains.
He was also sometimes made to wear metal handcuffs if he was noisy.
“My arms became very painful when wearing the handcuffs,” he recalls.
Saberi says that his state of mind became so unbalanced while in detention that he began shouting constantly in the confines of his small cell — something he thinks may have contributed to his loss of hearing and chronic tinnitus. When he complained to staff doctors at the detention center about his health problems, he says they were very slow to react and that treatment was minimal.
“When I complained I was experiencing pain in my ear they prescribed me sleeping pills and mild pain killers, like aspirin,” he says. “I had to beg for one month to get taken to a hospital to see a specialist.”
Dr Junpei Yamamura from the Minatomachi Clinic in Yokohama has been visiting the Yokohama Detention center on a monthly basis as an independent observer. He says cases like Saberi’s are common among long-term detainees.
“If people are detained for periods of six months or longer, there is usually a psychological reaction leading to sleeping disorders, depression, appetite loss or body pains and aches or something like that.”
Yamamura said tinnitus or the hearing of strange sounds could also be caused by stress, but such a reaction is not so common. However, Saberi’s reaction of shouting loudly and constantly was common in those circumstances, he added, especially if a detainee was put in solitary confinement.
“Sometimes detainees have so much anger at the immigration center, and it builds up and builds up. Shouting is a way for them to push out or release the anger. If you keep silent, it makes the psychological reaction worse, because you don’t push out the anger and anxiety which needs to be released,” he said. “If you keep those feelings you have locked inside, psychological diseases are more likely to develop.”
Yamamura also said that it was common for detainees to receive inadequate medical treatment from in-house doctors at the holding centers. He believes this is because these doctors are first and foremost employed by the detention center and are treated as staff members by the management. Because of this, their medical advice is often dispensed with the best interests of the detention center in mind, rather than the true medical needs of the patient, he says.
“Their job is just to keep the detainee’s symptoms at bay and try and help the final deportation procedure run as smoothly as possible.”
Tetsuro Isobei, the Immigration Bureau’s assistant director of enforcement, says the availability of medical facilities differs between detention centers in Japan and that sometimes only a visiting doctor is available.
“As we are not doctors, we are unable to make an evaluation when a detainee says something is wrong with them,” he explained. “We have to wait until a doctor visits the clinic and makes a diagnosis. If the doctor says it is necessary for the detainee to visit an outside hospital, then we take the detainee there.”
He added that when prescribing medicines to detainees, doctors would sometimes prescribe a medicine in the first instance and, after evaluating whether the patient had improved, may have to then modify the treatment.
“Sometimes, (if) a person’s confidence is low or they are worried or anxious, they may think something is wrong with their health when actually they are probably fine. I think those sorts of situations do occur in the detention center, but we always leave (it) up to the expert opinion of a medical doctor and let them make an evaluation.”
The frightening thing about Saberi’s case is that it is not unique among detainees — asylum seekers or otherwise — in immigration detention centers in Japan. In March this year, over 70 detainees at the notorious West Japan Immigration Center in Ibaraki City near Osaka went on an 11-day hunger strike to protest their prolonged detention and demand temporary release. Human rights activist Hiromi Sano was reported in The Japan Times at the time as saying some of the strikers were asylum seekers.
“They are demanding to know why their applications for release from the center were rejected, even though their refugee claims are being reviewed administratively or judicially, with support from lawyers and legal assistance workers,” she said.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Immigrants Jorge Bustamante, who visited Japan earlier this year on a fact-finding mission, was highly critical of the practice of holding visa over-stayers in detention, especially for prolonged periods of time. Some over-stayers in Japan are held for as long as two or three years, a practice Bustamante called “de facto indefinite detention.”
“Clear criteria should be established in order to limit detention to the cases where it is strictly necessary, avoiding detaining persons such as those who are ill or who are the parents of minor children,” he said. “A maximum period of detention pending deportation should be set, after which foreigners should be released.”
The Immigration Bureau’s Tetsuro Isobei said that under Japanese law, if someone is unable to obtain refugee status and told to return home, but they can’t — even for a legitimate reason — then they can be held in detention.
“It is not unlimited detention; they are held only until it is possible to send them home. In these cases we always consider whether or not to give ‘provisional release,’ ” he said.
Saberi was finally released from his latest stint at the Tokyo Immigration Center in August after a high-profile international “Free Jamal” campaign, which involved protests outside Japanese embassies in a number of countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Australia, calling for the Japanese government to release him from detention and stop his deportation back to Iran.
Although no longer under lock and key, the perpetual threat of deportation still hangs heavy over his head. He was issued a “permit for provisional release” by the immigration authorities — after first paying a ¥500,000 yen bond — but that needs to be renewed every month. Holders of provisional release permits also lack any real status of residency, as well as access to the rights and benefits that come with it. These include the right to work, to travel freely within Japan and to enroll in government health insurance programs.
“How am I supposed to live and support myself if I am not able to work?” Saberi asks. “It is a waste — I am unable to contribute to the society which I live in.”
Saberi has to rely on the generosity of friends and supporters to survive. In addition, provisional release permit holders must fill in a form and apply for permission to travel relatively short distances within Japan. For example, even a trip to a specialist doctor in Tokyo from Yokohama, where Saberi lives, involves a great deal of advance planning and red tape.
Worst of all, at any time the authorities could refuse to renew his permit, place him back in detention or reactivate his deportation order.
“I can’t ever feel at peace,” he says.
Despite the monumental difficulties Saberi has faced in Japan, life here is still preferable to returning to his homeland. As a vocal critic of the government of Iran and a member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WPI), Saberi is well known to the Iranian authorities. He fears imprisonment, torture and possibly even death if he is deported to his home country. Iran has a long track record of imprisoning its citizens for political crimes such as speaking out publicly against the regime. This is especially true for members of the WPI, which advocates the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
Following the ending of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988, Iran went through a brief period of relaxed state control when it became easier for Iranian citizens to escape the country. Fearing this opportunity wouldn’t last forever and eager to flee his homeland, Saberi jumped on a plane in Tehran in 1990 and flew to Tokyo.
“I just wanted to get out of Iran,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about Japan at the time.”
Saberi had heard through the grapevine that Japan issued visas to Iranians on arrival, something other nations such as the U.S. were not willing to do. He was issued a three-month tourist visa on arrival and after that expired he remained in the country illegally. In 1993 Saberi joined the WPI and in his free time he dedicated himself to political activities for the party, such as producing pamphlets and attending protests.
He supported himself working in factories, on farms and on construction sites for over 10 years before applying for refugee status in 2001.
Since the mass demonstrations that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, the Iranian regime has been cracking down even harder on dissenters. Just last week, according to reports in Iranian media, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for making online comments against the Islamic Republic.
Unable to go back to Iran yet unable to obtain refugee status in Japan, Saberi is living a life in limbo, deprived of many of the basic rights most of us take for granted.
Despite all this, he hasn’t given up on Japan, the country that has been his home for 20 years.
“I don’t dislike Japanese society itself and I have many good Japanese friends,” he says. “I just want Japan to become a more international and better country.”
“I also want to ask Japanese people to support Iranians who are battling to rid Iran its tyrannical and repressive government and trying to make Iran a better country.”
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