OSAKA — Amid concerns over allegations of human rights abuses at the West Japan Immigration Detention Center in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, local nongovernmental organizations will form an immigration watchdog group later this month.

The formation of the group comes just over a year after the NGOs started receiving reports that detainees at the center had been mistreated and that conditions there are exceptionally harsh when compared with those at equivalent centers in Tokyo.

In mid-April, immigration authorities at the center refused to respond to questions by Osaka-based NGOs over the treatment of detainees.

“Five Osaka NGOs, led by Rights of Immigrants Network Kansai, are banding together in late April in order to track allegations of human rights abuses at the West Japan Immigration Detention Center in Ibaraki and the Osaka Immigration Center in central Osaka,” Michitsune Kusaka of RINK said.

Since the end of March 2001, RINK and other groups involved in aiding detainees have detailed several incidents, all of which have been reported by the local media.

On May 7, 2001, for example, Ugandan Samuel Daka claimed he was beaten by guards at the Ibaraki center after he refused to be placed in solitary confinement. He later filed a lawsuit in the Osaka District Court.

On Oct. 16, guards at the center bound a Chinese detainee in a blanket and tried to put him on a plane to China. Upon seeing his condition, however, the pilot refused to take off, forcing authorities to take him back to the center.

Just two weeks later, immigration authorities reported that a detained Vietnamese man had committed suicide.

“It has been common at the center for the administration to ignore the length of confinement specified on the immigration detention order,” wrote Daka in a letter to the local media after the Vietnamese death. “A number of refugees, students, Asians and others have been detained for more than a year with no provisions of bail or clear explanations of why they have to be deported.”

Two detainees who have been held at the center for nearly two years are Ethiopians Gezahgne Seyoum Abebe and his wife, Yewubdar Tsegaye Sailedingel, both of whom are trying to get refugee status.

Gezahgne first came to Japan on a six-month visa in September 1996 as a Japan International Cooperation Agency trainee. In spring 1997, however, he got an urgent phone call from his wife, who said the political situation had deteriorated and Ethiopia was no longer safe.

He stayed in Japan illegally until his wife joined him on a three-month tourist visa in spring 1999.

The couple worked illegally in the Nagoya area until September 1999, when friends persuaded them to seek political asylum in Japan through the Tokyo office of Amnesty International.

After their applications were rejected in December of that year, they were placed in the Nagoya detention center, and later moved to the Ibaraki facility.

“Appeals to have them released into the custody of their Japanese friends and supporters have all been turned down,” said Juri Yukita, a lawyer representing the couple.

“Given that they applied for refugee status after they had overstayed their visas, it is going to be very difficult to get the courts to grant them refugee status.”

The Abebes’ health has been of particular concern to their Japanese supporters. Since May 2000, the Abebes have reportedly suffered a variety of ailments, including diarrhea, stomach pains, headaches and a toothache.

“In particular, Mrs. Abebe is in a bad way,” Yukita said.

“Last May, she suffered severe stomach cramps and was placed in solitary confinement for three days. When the couple complained, they were told by immigration officials that their ailments could not be treated in Japan, but could be treated in Ethiopia if they returned.”

Other inmates have also told Kusaka, Yukita and other supporters that, under a U.N. treaty, detainees should be allowed to partake in some exercise every day. In fact, detainees at the Ibaraki center are only allowed to go outside three times a week for 30 minutes each time.

Furthermore, even though they are married, the Abebes are held in separate rooms and are allowed to see each other only for 30 minutes every Saturday.

The center is divided into four blocks — two for men, one for women and one for detainees who are to be deported.

Each block features a large common room and sleeping quarters that can hold up to 10 detainees each. Inmates are told not to move between one block and another.

“Inmates have reported that they remain confined to their rooms, unlike Tokyo immigration centers, where inmates can move freely between blocks,” remarked Miwa Nakatsu, a local resident who has joined a support group for the Abebe couple.

“Detainees are also supposed to get exercise for 30 minutes, four times a week. However, there have also been reports that exercise is limited to 15 to 20 minutes.”

Citing privacy reasons, detention center officials refused to comment on specific allegations of human rights’ abuses, but they did not deny some have occurred.

They did admit, however, that not all of the detainees receive a full 30 minutes of outdoor exercise.

“Outdoor exercise normally takes place four times a week, but sometimes, such as in bad weather, the time is shortened,” said Masanobu Ishida, assistant director of the center.

“Also, not all detainees always choose to go outside for the full 30 minutes.”

The NGOs have also aired concerns over the inmates’ diet. They charge that meals do not contain sufficient vitamins, and detainees have long complained about the food’s taste.

In response, Ishida said, “We will soon make changes in the menu to make the food better.”

Renko Kitagawa, a Lower House member of the Social Democratic Party who has researched conditions at immigration detention centers throughout the country, noted that criticism of Japan’s facilities is widespread.

“The U.N. advised the Japanese government in 1998 to review its internment policy and bring it in line with the U.N. treaty,” he said.

“Noncompliance with the treaty means not following the law. However, there have been few changes. Japan’s immigration centers are not centers but jails. The country has a long way to go to reach international standards.”

Kusaka agreed with this assessment, saying, “That’s why it’s important that this watchdog group be formed.

“With so many foreigners now coming to live and work in Japan illegally, often at the encouragement of Japanese firms, the abuse in detention centers has grown to become a major human rights problem for Japan.”

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