Staff writer The number of people granted asylum by Japan in 1999 edged into double digits for the second straight year, but lawyers say some seeking to stay are being deported in an inhumane manner. This year, 11 people have been granted refugee status, down from 16 last year. On Nov. 22, an Iranian seeking refuge status was sent back to his country while staging a hunger strike for two weeks at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. Although a center official said he was not sure of the reason for the hunger strike, one of the man’s supporters said the detainee, whose name has been withheld, had demanded to meet with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to ask for help. His lawyer, Takeshi Ohashi, and supporters who met the Iranian on Nov. 15 at the center said he was so weakened that he could only sit in a chair with the support of an official. He had been fed intravenously because he had not touched meals the center provided, the official said. Supporters criticized immigration authorities for sending him back to his country on a long flight while he was in such a fragile state after a two-week hunger strike. Immigration authorities said they deported the man only after a doctor at the center claimed he would be able to handle the flight, adding that his deportation had already been prepared. Besides his health, supporters are concerned about his treatment upon arriving in Iran. The man reportedly belonged to Mashrote Khahan, a London-based antigovernment group, and he had contributed an article to the group’s publication. He entered Japan in 1992. He was taken into custody in May 1998 for overstaying, and requested refuge status in August that year, according to his lawyer. His request was denied two months later on Oct. 20. When foreigners detained by the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau are deported, they must pay their way home. In some cases, however, Japan foots the bill. Immigration authorities explained that deportation financed by the state is the last resort and only for those who have no way of obtaining the necessary money. But criteria for making decisions to use public funds for deportations are unclear. Some detainees are held at immigration centers more than a year because they cannot secure return tickets, while in other cases, such as the Iranian’s, quick decisions are made to use public funds for deportations, legal experts said. Supporters of the Iranian said he may have been deported hastily because immigration authorities wanted to avoid trouble stemming from the man’s hunger strike. On Nov. 30, another Iranian, whose name has also been withheld, was sent back home from the same immigration center even though his suit seeking refugee status was pending. The first hearing of his case was set for Jan. 25 before the Tokyo District Court, said Ohashi, who also provided legal assistance to the man. It is believed to be the first such deportation since a Chinese woman was sent home in 1991 while her case was pending, prompting criticism from the media and lawyers. Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer assisting refugees, said, “I suspect (immigration authorities) throw out (detainees) whenever something troublesome occurs.” He filed a request for provisional release in August for an Eritrean-Ethiopian seeking refugee status who had been detained at the Nishi-Nihon Immigration Center in Osaka Prefecture. But on Nov. 8, the immigration bureau informed him that earlier in the day the request had been rejected and that his client, whose name has also been withheld, had been put on a plane at Kansai International Airport, Watanabe said. The deportee insisted he could not go home because Eritreans are exiled from Ethiopia, where he left his Ethiopian wife, he said. However, an official at the Ethiopian Embassy in Japan claimed the Ethiopian government will persecute Eritreans only if they engage in illegal activities, not simply because of their origin. The Eritrean-Ethiopian, who has severe burn scars on his shoulder and knee that he claimed resulted from torture in Ethiopia, was flown to Bangkok, where he refused to continue his trip home. He has been at Bangkok’s airport ever since, according to a journalist who has followed the case. The Eritrean-Ethiopian claimed he was anesthetized when authorities made him board the plane at Kansai airport. The Immigration Bureau said it cannot answer questions on individual cases but claimed it has never used drugs on deportees. Watanabe said, however, that he believes his client’s story is credible and plans to file a lawsuit as early as January against the state for inhumane acts. At the request of the Social Democratic Party, the Justice Ministry in August revealed that 35 people were being detained at immigration centers for periods of six months to three years. Shiho Tsutsui of the Japan Association for Refugees, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization, said she is afraid that criticism of long-term detention of asylum-seekers may prompt authorities to deport them with little notice. The U.N. Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Japan ratified earlier this year, stipulates that signatories may not send a person to a country where the individual may be subjected to persecution. Nevertheless, Ohashi said two Kurds seeking asylum in Japan had their requests rejected and were deported back to Turkey in September, adding that they were later jailed for political reasons. It is rare for the fates of those deported to be tracked. Ohashi said the issue of asylum-seekers boils down to the government’s immigration policy. Although hints at accepting more refugees can be seen in recent government measures, strong sentiment against accepting asylum-seekers remains strong, he said. Chikako Saito of the UNHCR said government policies are a reflection of public opinion. “It is up to the people whether Japan becomes open (to refugees) or not,” she said, adding that the media and NGOs should be much more involved in the issue.
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