National

9% rise in overstayers detained over six months puts spotlight on ‘provisional release’ program

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

The number of visa overstayers detained by the Immigration Bureau for more than six months rose in 2017, the Justice Ministry announced Monday.

Of the 1,386 people being kept at the bureau’s 17 detention centers around the country, 510, or about 37 percent, had been held for more than six months as December 2017. This amounts to a 9 percent rise from 2016.

The surge appears linked to the ministry’s crackdown on “provisional releases,” which are given to people with conditional deportation orders. The releases allow overstayers to reside outside detention centers temporarily. Those granted provisional release are prohibited from working and can only stay within areas designated by the ministry.

In 2015, the Justice Ministry ordered all of its immigration centers to revoke the provisional release status of anyone found working illegally. Following that mandate, the number of people with deportation orders under the provincial release program fell to 3,106 in 2017, down 500 from 2015.

Immigration Bureau official Ryusuke Kawaguchi said that while there is no single reason that explains the recent spike in detentions, there has been an increase in people who were given deportation orders but refused to go home.

“We also revoke provisional releases if someone breaks the rules, such as by illegally working, and a number of such cases have been seen recently,” Kawaguchi said.

Some experts say the newly tightened refugee application system introduced in January will further prolong detention periods.

Under the previous system, the ministry was inundated with over 19,000 applications, the majority from laborers whose goal was deemed to be the work permits typically handed out six months after applying for refugee status.

To close that loophole, the ministry decided to detain all applicants who cited reasons that clearly did not meet U.N. Refugee Convention guidelines. They are to be deported once their refugee applications are officially declined, which takes more than 10 months on average, an immigration official said.

The ministry also detains asylum-seekers who have received rejections as well as deportation orders, regardless of whether they are reapplying for refugee status.

Human rights groups have decried Japan’s detention centers, with lawyers often denouncing the “jail-like” conditions described by detainees.

A total of 13 detainees have died in detention while awaiting deportation since 2007, and five have committed suicide, including an Indian man in his thirties who killed himself last month after his application for provisional release was rejected.

Gul, a Kurdish asylum-seeker in his 30s who declined to release his full name for safety reasons, said he lost 8 kg during his five months in detention and was eventually released due to high blood pressure and a severe hernia he developed during his stay.

“The doctor performed the medical check without touching my body and just gave me painkillers,” Gul said. “I could barely walk and yet they did not let me use crutches. After two months inside the center, they finally gave me crutches,” said Gul. “If I was deported, I might be put in jail in my country, but being in a detention center while (re)applying for refugee status is no different from being in jail.”