Immigration detention centers like prisons, U.K. inspectors say

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

When British incarceration inspection expert Hindpal Singh Bhui last month paid his first visit to a Japanese immigration detention center, his overriding initial impression was that it looked like a prison.

“The fact that if someone comes to visit detainees, the starting point is that you’re behind a glass screen and you can’t touch someone — that feels quite restrictive,” Bhui, team leader for London-based Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, told The Japan Times during a recent visit to Japan.

“It’s something which perhaps is a prison-style approach and which was surprising to see in immigration detention centers,” Bhui said of his visit to the government facility in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Established in 1982, HMIP is an independent inspectorate with unchallenged authority to probe state-run institutions, from prisons to immigration and military detention centers.

The British system stands in contrast with Japan’s immigration inspectorate, which is poorly funded and regarded as having little independence from the government, Japanese lawyers say.

The HMIP’s underlying philosophy that detainees should enjoy “as much openness as possible” also sends out an important message to a nation where neglect is suspected in the successive deaths of two immigration detainees in recent years.

Although funded significantly by the British government, HMIP is nonetheless granted full autonomy to carry out “independent, rigorous” inspections, Bhui said.

Its team members can arrive at target institutions unannounced, go anywhere within the premises and speak to anyone they encounter. The organization also has “unfettered” ability to publish its findings and make recommendations both to center managers and the government entities in charge to urge them to rectify malpractice.

The group’s inspections over the years have led to significant changes in policy and “general improvement in treatment and conditions” at British immigration facilities, according to HMIP inspector Colin Carroll.

Unlike the past, the Home Office, which overseas immigration policies in Britain, no longer tolerates the use of physical force to deport pregnant women and children, Carroll said.

Also, detainees in Britain now can freely chat with visiting family members in an open lounge and hug and kiss them, Bhui said. They are also permitted to carry mobile phones and surf the Internet to stay in touch with their lawyers and keep abreast of developments in their home countries.

Some even watch movies, work on art projects or practice music with fellow detainees.

“People in immigration centers tend to be far more frustrated and dislocated, physically or mentally. They’re away from family, away from support. So the opportunity to make phone calls to the family makes a big difference,” Bhui said.

“Detention centers in the U.K. understand it’s better for the safety of their own center if detainees can contact people outside. Because (that way) they’re less frustrated, and if they’re less frustrated, they’re less likely to misbehave within the center.”

Detention inmates, Bhui continued, haven’t committed specific criminal offenses and are often trying to enter the country to make a better life for themselves and their families, which he said is a “laudable positive sentiment.”

“They’re not there to be punished. They’re not there because they’re criminals,” he said.

This notion of openness, however, appears nonexistent in Japanese immigration centers, where detainees frequently go on hunger strikes or attempt suicide to protest what critics describe as their almost inhumane living conditions behind closed doors.

The lack of adequate medical services, in particular, has taken a tragic toll on detainees in recent years, highlighting the nation’s doctor shortage.

In the past two years, a man from Sri Lanka and another from the persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar who were detained at the Tokyo Immigration Regional Bureau in Shinagawa Ward died in separate incidents after staff failed to respond promptly to their medical emergencies. Two others died at the immigration center in Ushiku last March.

Bhui declined to comment directly on each of these cases, but added: “We have a system in the U.K. where if there is any death in detention, there will be an inquest by a coroner, who can call witnesses. Also, the ombudsman will do its own separate investigation into any death,” he said.

Bhui further noted that HMIP will follow up with detention centers to see if they have implemented preventive measures as recommended by the ombudsman. He called it a system to “identify problems, see why death happened in the first place and try to prevent that from happening in the future.”

“I think if there were system like that (in Japan), that would be good.”

Shortly after the death of the Sri Lankan man, the Tokyo Bar Association issued a statement in which it condemned the Justice Ministry’s repeated failure to identify the cause of detainees’ deaths and stressed the need for a third-party inquest system to prevent them.

Japan’s own inspectorate, or “nyuukokusha shuuyoshoto shisatsu iinkai” in Japanese, is under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, despite its purported third-party status. Every aspect of its visits to immigration centers is rigidly controlled and pre-arranged by the ministry, according to Koichi Kodama, a lawyer well-versed in foreigners’ rights.

Established in 2010, Japan’s nascent monitoring committee, the lawyer said, is also underfunded, getting a fraction of the whopping £4.5 million the HMIP gets each year. The ministry says on its website that its members total 20, consisting largely of lawyers, medical experts and NGO activists, but no further details on their identities have been publicized.

Limited budgets are certainly a hurdle, but to break the status quo, members of Japan’s inspectorate first need to better promote the organization and win public support for its relevance, lawyer Hiroshi Miyauchi said.

“For the committee to win (a) higher budget and increase staffing, its members need to do more to convince the public that their organization is important,” Miyauchi said.

“So there should really be a system where they can speak out more freely on their findings or appeal to the public at their own initiative, or outside the (government) framework.”