U.N. rights rep has bone to pick


Jorge Bustamante, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of immigrants, has concluded his Japan visit and takes with him a sense that the government lacks a system to curb discrimination and better protect the human rights of foreigners.

Bustamante, on his first official fact-finding mission here, focused on the human rights situation of migrants and said he would submit a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September or October.

He spent more than a week in Tokyo; Nagoya; Toyota, Aichi Prefecture; and Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture; meeting with government officials as well as human rights organizations and various foreigners living in Japan.

“There is a long history of isolation of Japan in regard to the rest of the world and that produces phenomena that are unique to Japan,” Bustamante told The Japan Times on March 31. “One of them is a very short experience in dealing with foreigners.”

According to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, there were about 2.2 million registered foreigners in Japan in 2008, making up 1.74 percent of the entire population. It was the highest figure in history, showing a 46.6 percent increase from 1998. Meanwhile, more than 91,000 people were illegally overstaying their visas as of Jan. 1 this year.

Bustamante met several families who have been issued deportation orders for entering Japan illegally or overstaying their visas. All have been in Japan for years, and the first language of many of their children is Japanese, reflecting the nation of their birth.

Despite their pleas for special permission to stay in Japan, the government has given them an ultimatum — that the entire family leaves the country or they leave their Japan-born children behind. In 2008, 39,382 people were deported, while 8,522 were granted special permission to stay by the justice minister.

One case that gained wide attention was that of Noriko Calderon, the 14-year-old girl who was born in Japan to undocumented Filipino parents. Last year, her parents agreed to be sent back and left their daughter with her aunt, who has legal status in Japan. The U.N. expert expressed deep concern over the separation of children from their parents and said he would write about it in his report.

“(The report) is going to be made public,” Bustamante told the families. “And this, of course, might result in an embarrassment for the government of Japan and therefore certain pressure (will be) put on the government of Japan.”

Calderon’s case, however, got mixed reactions in Japan. Some people showed support and sympathy while others raised questions over the special treatment the family appeared to receive even though they were in Japan illegally.

But Bustamante argued that everyone, including illegal foreign residents, have human rights.

“The general overview has to deal with the recognition that irregular migrants have rights as human beings, as subjects of human rights,” Bustamante said. “And in that realm of things, they very often have legitimate grievances about the way they are treated, and I’ve heard a lot of things related to that during my visit.”

The special rapporteur also expressed concern over the practice of placing illegal foreign residents in detention.

Bustamante pointed out that some are held two to three years, which is a “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 parents of minor children,” Bustamante told a March 31 news conference in Tokyo after he finished his tour.

“Importantly, a maximum period of detention pending deportation should be set, after which foreigners should be released.”

In March, about 70 detainees at the West Japan Immigration Control Center in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, went on an 11-day hunger strike, demanding their release. There have also been reports of abuse and harsh conditions at the center.

Bustamante said he met with former detainees who claimed to have been victims of various types of abuse.

“There are serious concerns with regard to appropriate health care not being provided to migrants in detention centers, and the lack of effective mechanisms to monitor human rights violations occurring in detention centers, and to examine complaints,” he said.

Bustamante slammed the industrial trainee and technical intern program, in which overseas workers can stay in Japan for a maximum of three years. The program has been harshly criticized over alleged mistreatment of the workers.

The rapporteur said some cases may “amount to slavery” and it should be replaced by an employment program.

“The industrial trainees and technical interns program often fuels demand for exploitative cheap labor under conditions that constitute violation of the right to physical and mental health, physical integrity, freedom of expression and movement of foreign trainees and interns, and that in some cases may well amount to slavery,” Bustamante said.

He also met with activist Debito Arudo, chairman of Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association, and Ryom Munsong, an assistant professor at Korea University in Tokyo.

Ryom explained to Bustamante the recent controversy over whether the government should include North Korean-linked schools under the new high school tuition waiver program. Opposition has been raised, even in official circles, to including the schools due to their affiliation with Pyongyang, which in the 1970s and 1980s abducted several Japanese who remain unaccounted for.

Bustamante was shown videotape of rightwing activists shouting abusive language in front of a Korean elementary school in Kyoto last December, denouncing it as a “North Korean spy school.”

Asked for comments on the North Korean school issue, Bustamante said in the interview: “It’s very unfortunate that there are instances of xenophobia and prejudice against foreigners, because, as it is always the case, prejudice leads to irrational behavior” such as the rightwing harassment.

Arudo talked about racial discrimination, citing housing and how difficult it is for foreigners to rent an apartment, and “racial profiling” by police in which he said officers will stop non-Japanese on the streets and demand to see their foreign registration cards.

Bustamante said that during his visit he repeatedly heard accounts of racial discrimination against foreigners. A legal framework must be established to prevent such bias, he said.

“Racism and discrimination based on nationality are still too common in Japan,” Bustamante said.

“Japan should adopt specific legislation on the prevention and elimination of racial discrimination, since the current general provisions included in the Constitution and existing laws are not effective in protecting foreign residents from discrimination based on race and nationality,” he said.