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When a Middle Eastern man in his 50s stepped outside of the Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture on Oct. 4, it was his first taste of freedom in four years and 10 months.

He took a deep drag on a cigarette and had a sip of canned coffee, savoring the moment as he left the detention center on provisional release.

“It’s like a dream,” he said, looking up at the blue sky. “I will never make the same mistake again.”

From 2010 he served a six-year prison term after being convicted of involvement in illegal drug-related activities.

By the time he was released, in late 2016, he no longer had a valid residential status to stay in Japan, so he was detained separately at an Osaka Immigration Bureau facility. He was transferred to Omura Immigration Center in 2018.

The provisional release he was finally granted came only after his 17th attempt.

The man fears that if he returns to his home country, he will face persecution for religious reasons. So he plans to stay in Japan’s Chubu region, where he has friends and others on whose support he can rely.

Jin Matsui, a lawyer at the Fukuoka Bar Association who assists asylum-seekers, pointed out that a revision of the provisional release system would enable them to work in order to make a living.

The man released from the Omura center was granted his temporary release as Japan’s immigration authorities face intensifying scrutiny following the death of a Sri Lankan woman while she was detained at an immigration center in Nagoya in March.

In a report released by the Immigration Services Agency (ISA), which handles asylum-seeker’s cases, the authorities admitted that an officer at the detention center where the woman was held made fun of her when she became unable to drink fluids, vomiting the liquid through her nose.

“It was an inappropriate remark that lacked the consideration of human rights,” the report pointed out.

The Sri Lankan woman’s death was not an isolated case. Two years ago, a Nigerian man at the Omura center died of starvation while on hunger strike in protest against his long-term detention.

There has been criticism at home and abroad over the long-term detention of visa overstayers, some of whom have been detained for over nine years, and the practice has been cited as a violation of human rights.

The Middle Eastern man also recalls his time spent in detention as “painful.” He said that he was verbally harassed by the officers over trivial matters. An injury to his leg during detention has yet to heal, he added.

“I just wanted them to treat me like a human being,” he said.

Since last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a rapid rise in the number of detainees granted provisional release in order to prevent the spread of infections within the facilities. Due to the policy revision, the number still held has decreased to 10 as of Oct. 15. from about 130 in the summer of 2019.

However, advocates and supporters of asylum seekers see that as a temporary measure rather than a fundamental resolution of the issues presented by long-term detention of overstayers in Japan. There is also no sign of the government using its political resources to weigh in.

Kunihiro Kawada, a long-time supporter of the detainees, has revealed the occurrence of even more harmful practices, which affect not only the detainees but also detention officers.

“I don’t know everything, but it is not only the detainees who are suffering mentally,” he said. “Some of the younger officers who have been forced to harass the detainees by their seniors are suffering from a guilty conscience, too.”

When asked about their stance, an official at the Omura Immigration Center said although they are not aware of specific harassment cases caused by senior officers, it is possible that detainees are not happy with the way they are treated.

The outlook for Japan’s program of detaining long-term overstayers who may face persecution if they are deported, once the pandemic settles down, remains unclear.

This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published Oct. 18.

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