The East Japan Immigration Center, more commonly known as the Ushiku detention center, stands in the middle of sleepy countryside in Ibaraki Prefecture, 50 km north of Tokyo. With one of the world’s tallest standing Buddha statues less than 3 km away, the center could have made a nice country getaway for urbanites seeking rest and respite from the cramped metropolis.

However, Ushiku is anything but a holiday destination for foreigners who come to Japan without proper visas and their families. Technically, Japan’s immigration authorities can detain a foreigner without proper documentation for an indefinite period if they suspect the individual has violated the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. On paper, a detention order normally authorizes a maximum detention of 60 days; in reality, however, once a deportation order has been issued, there is no clear limit on how long a person can be held.

According to statistics disclosed by the Ministry of Justice to the Solidarity Networks for Migrants in Japan, 98 foreigners had been detained for six months or longer as of November 2011, with 12 of them locked up for at least 18 months.

Human rights groups say provisional release has been applied more widely to detainees since 2010, after some held hunger strikes to call for better treatment and shorter detention periods. In February this year, the Justice Ministry signed a memorandum with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and the Forum for Refugees Japan, a nonprofit organization, to work together to improve the treatment of asylum seekers and discuss alternatives to detention. Rights groups generally welcome the move as a step forward, but whether the ministry will live up to its promise is yet to be seen.

Many of the detainees at Ushiku are asylum seekers, or overstayers married to Japanese nationals. Others have lost their spouse visas after getting divorced and don’t want to leave Japan because their ex-partners have custody of their Japan-born children. Human rights groups say the authorities have detained a range of individuals — including minors, the old and the sick — over the years, with little regard for their age, health condition or family situation.

Until his release in January after more than six months in detention, 28-year-old Snow Hanada used to make the three-hour train and bus trip to visit her Dominican husband at Ushiku on a weekly basis. Visiting hours are limited to weekdays, so she was forced to take a day off from her office job each time she came.

Hanada saw her husband cry many times during her visits to the detention center. Living conditions at Ushiku are harsh, says Hanada, but that was not what he was upset about.

“He was crying because the authorities do not view our marriage as legal. They are treating us as if we are faking it just because he wants a visa,” Hanada explains. But, she argues, “Since I am Japanese, I should have the right to start a family and to raise my children here.”

When he broke down during her visits, Hanada longed to be able to hug her husband. However, at Ushiku family visits are usually conducted through a glass partition.

The center does have a visiting room without a glass barrier, where parents are allowed to meet their children if they are younger than 16. According to the center’s regulations, this room can also be used by those without young children providing immigration authorities don’t believe there are any security issues involved. Hanada’s application to use the room was rejected.

“What kind of security threat was there?” Hanada asks. “He is my husband, and there was no threat at all from allowing me to simply hug him.”

Hanada was among a group of family members of 21 Ushiku detainees who filed a joint written request to the detention center in January asking for permission to use the visiting room without the glass partition. Despite following up on the application several times since then, Ushiku officials have told the group they are still considering the request.

Contacted by The Japan Times, Koji Nakagawa of the general affairs division at the Ushiku center confirmed that the center had received the request. He said there have been some cases in the past in which use of the room without a partition was granted, but wouldn’t comment on how the center is dealing with this particular request.

Hanada met her husband, who was then 23, at a bar in Tokyo in July 2010. They fell in love and began living together within a month.

“For me, he is like a sun on a white, sandy beach,” recalls Hanada. “We loved to listen to Latin music together on Sundays, just being lazy. That was all we needed.”

By December 2010 the young couple had begun talking about their future and the possibility of starting a family.

“I got a feeling that he might be overstaying, so I asked him straight out. I wanted to get things right, if we were going to be serious,” Hanada says.

He told her the truth: He came to Japan in 2008 when he was a still a student, and he was overstaying his visa when they met.

The couple examined Japanese immigration regulations and found that overstayers could apply for special permits to stay in Japan known as zaitoku. But the guidelines for the application seemed daunting.

The Justice Ministry issued its “Guidelines on Special Permission to Stay in Japan” in 2006. Revised in 2009, these regulations are supposed to open doors for overstayers to gain special residency permission based on family circumstances or humanitarian grounds. However, married coupled are often forced to prove that their marriages are, as the guidelines put it, “stable and mature,” and this can work unfavorably against couples without children, or those who have not lived together for what the documents call “a significant period of time,” say rights groups.

The young couple decided to get married first before presenting themselves to the immigration authorities. They were in the process of getting their papers ready when Hanada’s fiance was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of overstaying, just two weeks before the wedding date.

Prosecutors decided not to indict him, and their marriage application was accepted by a local municipality immediately after his arrest. Nevertheless, immigration authorities detained him anyway, for seven months in total, until his provisional release was granted in January. Hanada has her husband back — at least for now — but their experience has only made her more determined to support other families going through similar ordeals.

In fact, for many who signed the written request for the use of the visiting room, getting permission to hug their husbands or family members is only the first step. They also want to help improve the poor living conditions their loved ones face at the center as they wait anxiously for either their return home or possible deportation.

There have been a number of suicide attempts and hunger strikes at Japanese immigration centers. Two people succeeded in taking their own lives at the Ushiku center in 2010, and Ushiku No Kai, a group supporting detainees at the center, says there have been several more suicide attempts since then. In 2010, detainees at the West Japan Immigration Center in Osaka and the Ushiku center went on hunger strike in March and May, respectively, demanding that those detained for long periods, as well as minors and the sick, be released, and that detention conditions, including access to medical treatment, be improved.

According to Justice Ministry statistics, a total of 1,064 people were detained across Japan, including 12 minors, as of November 2011. The ministry does not release the number of suicide attempts while in detention, but the data reveal 45 cases of “self-harm” in 2010.

The treatment of irregular — or illegal — immigrants and refugee applicants by the Japanese authorities has also come under international scrutiny. In April 2010, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, said irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Japan face discrimination, exploitation and other forms of mistreatment. According to Bustamante, “a considerable number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers are detained for very long periods with limited access to judicial processes. While a legal counsel is allowed to intervene in the procedures of requesting a special permission to stay, such interventions are restricted.”

Bustamante also cited poor health care conditions in detention facilities. He wrote: “Many of the detainees that the special rapporteur met suffered from various diseases, in some cases very serious, and the majority complained about not receiving adequate health care. They had not been allowed to continue the medication they had been taking before they were detained, and were given light medication instead, which was seriously compromising their health and possibility of recovering. For example, a detainee suffering from diabetes reported he was only given painkillers and his condition had worsened tremendously.”

A volunteer who visits the Ushiku center regularly says the center now holds about 300 detainees, but has only one doctor on site, four days a week. Detainees are not given sufficient medical care, says Mitsuru Miyasako of Bond, a group supporting foreign workers and refugees. Detainees are often given painkillers and tranquilizers without the cause of their symptoms having first been diagnosed, he says. Exercise hours are limited to 40 minutes, Monday to Friday, whereas they should be given a longer period to exercise every day, he adds.

Nakagawa, the Ushiku official, said the center acknowledges the complaints about its health care system and the length and frequency of the exercise sessions and is working to improve the situation despite operating with limited resources.

Detainees at the Ushiku center have a daily routine of “free hours” between 9:30 a.m. and noon, and 1-4:30 p.m., during which they take showers, do their laundry or call their families. Other than that, they are locked in small rooms where they have no privacy at all.

Families are not allowed to bring in food for the detainees, except for the snacks and cup noodles sold at the center.

The wife of one detainee says her husband has lost a significant amount of weight. “All I could give him is cup noodles and snacks, and I am so worried about his health,” she says. The couple tries to talk together every day, but since she cannot phone him, all she can do is wait for his calls.

“None of these people need to be treated like this,” says Hanada. ” The (3/11) earthquake last year highlighted the importance of kizuna (human ties), yet the authorities are undermining the value of the family. They think they have the right to judge which families are to be separated.”

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