On Nov 19, approximately 180 foreign nationals formerly detained by Japanese immigration authorities gathered at Shinagawa Station for a protest march to the Immigration Bureau, where leaders of the Provisional Release Association Japan (PRAJ) presented officials with documents calling for immediate reforms to Japan’s immigration system, and to its system for detaining immigration law violators in particular.
The number of immigrants in detention has remained high since the Ministry of Justice began an initiative to reduce undocumented immigrants in Japan by half in 2003. Immigration detention in Japan is indefinite, and advocates for detainees say that detainment rarely lasts less than 10-12 months, except in cases where detainees voluntarily deport themselves, thereby skewing statistics in a manner that obscures the true typical length of detention. The number of applications for Provisional Release ("kari-homen") — which is legally tantamount to a suspension of the detention and deportation process while an immigration appeal or refugee application is ongoing—has risen sharply, and the number of former detainees free on "kari-homen" rose to more than 2,500 in 2013, four times the 2009 number. "Kari-homen" does not provide legal status or work permission in Japan.
“We are being trapped in a broken immigration system, and the Japanese government hasn’t taken any steps to fix it,” said Elizabeth Obueza, a Nigerian national on "kari-homen" who organizes African members of PRAJ and serves as the organization’s English-language spokesperson. “We believe that they feel it is better for them if the system is worse; then people won’t come, or they will go home. But their own system is bringing people here.”
Obueza explained that she was referring to the comparative ease of obtaining a short-term visa to Japan from Africa, where Japanese consular officials have struggled to properly screen applications. One former employee of the Japanese embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, said: “The back door is wide open.”
The former detainees were joined by about 40 Japanese supporters. PRAJ is jointly operated by a handful of organizers from various parts of Japan, some foreign, some Japanese. Currently, the group, which has been operating since 2010, claims 590 members. Protesters at the Nov 19 event represented 17 nations.
PRAJ often advocates for former detainees who have obtained "kari-homen" by applying for refugee status in Japan. Media commentators and former Ministry of Justice officials have been especially critical of the mounting dysfunction which has characterized Japan’s refugee application system. Authorities have failed (on several occasions) to clear a long backlog as application numbers have skyrocketed and Japan’s admission of asylum seekers has plummeted. In 2013, 3,777 applications resulted in the recognition of only six refugees. A 2010 pilot program instituted by Japanese authorities and the UNHCR office in Tokyo to resettle Myanmar refugees in Japan failed when not enough interested applicants could be found. The program was the first of its kind in Asia, and had been intended to set a regional precedent for refugee resettlement.
Advocates insist that even the handful of refugee applicants who are granted asylum do not receive a good faith treatment of their application. They maintain that terminally ill applicants constitute a disproportionate number of successful asylum seekers, regardless of the particulars of their applications, suggesting that these individuals are admitted to create the appearance that the system is capable of providing positive outcomes. “It’s an old joke among people who work with detainees,” comments American expat Alex Easley, who provides humanitarian support to recently-released detainees via the prison ministry of Tokyo Baptist Church. “Refugee status is like a death sentence. It means they know something about your health you don’t know.”
Obueza and co-organizer Mitsuru Miyasako say they have adapted their advocacy activities in response to this pattern. They report that they were recently able to obtain refugee status for two individuals suffering from aggressive forms of cancer.
According to its organizers, PRAJ’s primary goals lie in the organization of the growing population of former detainees for sustained political action. Members were recently issued with formal identification cards, which indicate clearly to law enforcement authorities that bearers are refugee applicants with access to PRAJ attorneys, interpreters and advocates, who operate in a nation-wide network and provide free legal support to members, including on an emergency basis.
“I was in detention for seven years,” said Peruvian national Serita, who attended the November protest less than two weeks after her release. “I began to lose my mind.”
Serita and the PRAJ advocates who helped secure her release on "kari-homen" say that she was initially detained when her former husband turned her in to authorities. She had reported him to the police for sexually molesting their daughter, who remains under state care to this day, and who, Serita says, she will now be able to see once every three months if she is lucky, according to her lawyers.
PRAJ members claim that the UNHCR office in Tokyo, charged by the U.N. with international oversight of refugee law, has been quiet on cases like Serita’s, which has directly compelled them to organize among themselves. Japan is the second-largest donor to UNHCR, and Obueza argues that the nation’s financial largesse has enabled it to avoid overhauling its broken refugee application system. “Hypocrisy. It’s blatant hypocrisy, verging on corruption,” she said.
Obueza, who travels throughout Japan seven days a week to meet with detainees, was recently called to the Immigration Bureau in Shinagawa and then arrested. Authorities informed her that her domestic travel on PRAJ activities violates the terms of her own "kari-homen," but explained that they would be releasing her so that she could inform other PRAJ members about the illegal nature of their activities.
“I told them very simply,” Obueza said, “that if anyone had been fighting for us, we wouldn’t have to fight for ourselves. If they want to arrest us, they can. No situation can be worse than the one we have now.”© Japan Today