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Undocumented workers in a constant state of uncertainty

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

People who live in a state of daily desperation sometimes react to their circumstances with violence against others or themselves and, while such actions are a manifestation of frustration, they can also alert the larger world to that frustration, even if it wasn’t intended.

During a single week in May there were four suicide attempts involving three people at the East Japan Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, where more than 300 foreign nationals are being detained as they await deportation. These acts follow the suicide of an Indian man at the center in April, which then led to a hunger strike by more than 100 detainees.

Attorney Shoichi Ibusuki, an expert on immigration issues who has represented foreign detainees, discussed the matter during the May 29 edition of the TBS Radio talk show Session 22, saying that “there are more suicide attempts (at immigration facilities) than are reported.”

Nevertheless, leading news outlets, which mostly ignore the issue of detained foreign nationals, have started to pay attention. The reason for the sudden interest isn’t clear, although it seems to be a confluence of sensational stories, the large increase in inbound tourism and the government’s sensitivity toward foreign visitors in the runup to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In May, the Asahi Shimbun and other publications posted a security video of a Turkish man being severely manhandled last July by employees of the Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau, fracturing his arm in the process. The man filed a lawsuit against the state on May 29.

As Session 22 host Chiki Ogiue commented, the video was made public at around the same time that the “dangerous tackle” images from a Japanese college American football game were dominating the TV news cycle, and he wondered if the footage would have received more attention if the football scandal hadn’t happened.

Ogiue suggests that the detention video is much more disturbing, a quality that by itself might have kept it off the nightly news, but the more pertinent consideration is whether broadcasters think the Japanese public is ready or willing to accept the treatment detainees receive in immigration control centers, treatment that Ibusuki says amounts to violations of their human rights. He wonders if the public has bought into the government’s narrative that detainees are criminals even if they never actually call them criminals or characterize their detention as punishment.

At issue is the length of their detention, which, for some, can be as much as several years. As Ibusuki points out, detainees are technically being processed for departure. Once the procedure is complete, they will presumably leave Japan, but during the process they have to remain locked up. Most are overstayers, though a good number are seeking asylum. In effect, they have no status, which means they aren’t “prisoners” in a legal sense because “imprisonment” indicates a process that includes indictment and a conviction. Under indictment, a judge determines whether the accused is to be detained prior to and during a trial. When it comes to immigration problems, however, immigration officials make such determinations and do what they please. This vague status can also apply to those who have Japanese spouses or relatives residing legally in Japan, because until the process is finished, they are at the mercy of the Justice Ministry.

Ibusuki isn’t sure why the ministry keeps detainees locked up for so long. Session 22 also talked to Yugo Hirano, a reporter for Kyodo News who has probably covered the detainee issue more thoroughly than anyone. Hirano discussed one young man from India who came to Japan seeking asylum to avoid the military draft in his country and was granted permission for provisional stay (kari taizai). He married a Japanese woman, but ended up violating a condition of his approved stay and was detained in April 2017. He applied for provisional release (kari homen), but was not allowed to meet with his wife. After waiting a year, he swallowed shampoo in front of some staff, more out of desperation than in any attempt to kill himself.

In a constant state of uncertainty, detainees follow the process but get no feedback as to how that process is progressing. Ibusuki thinks the government wants to wear them down so that they leave Japan of their own will — and, perhaps more significantly, at their own expense. Forced deportations look bad to the rest of the world.

Hirano has talked to Ministry of Justice officials who told him the detention policy is a “safety countermeasure” for the Tokyo Olympics, thus implying that undocumented foreign nationals are considered potential wrongdoers who will ruin the games for others. Hirano can find no data that supports this supposition. The vast majority of undocumented foreign nationals are law-abiding, since they would not do anything to risk their situation. The only thing “illegal” about them is their presence. As with the current controversy in the United States regarding asylum seekers detained and separated from their children as soon as they show up at the border, it is in the Japanese government’s interest to characterize undocumented foreign nationals as lawbreakers even though they have the right, at least as far as international society is concerned, to apply for residence.

Ogiue says this thinking applies to all inbound foreign nationals, including tourists and workers. Everyone is seen as either an economic benefit or an economic liability. Thousands work in low-paying jobs, including many who have applied for refugee status, because Japan desperately needs them, but the government doesn’t know how to deal with them in a forthright manner, and so insists they are only here for a short period or pretends they don’t exist. In a discussion of the matter in the June issue of Sekai, Swiss novelist Max Frisch is quoted regarding his own country’s immigration policy as a means of explaining Japan’s current situation: “We asked for workers, but we got human beings instead.”