Ahead of the Japanese government’s latest attempt to push through repressive legislation that will reinforce its powers to detain migrants indefinitely, asylum seekers and others have spoken out about the inherent cruelty of the country’s immigration system.
More than 30 migrants and asylum seekers interviewed for a new piece of Amnesty International research, some of whom have been held for several years, said harsh immigration detention conditions and policies had driven some detainees to undertake hunger strikes and even attempt suicide.
Their stories come as Japan’s parliament considers a new amendment to the refugee and immigration law that would undermine migrant rights.
“Migrants have painted a grim picture of what it’s like to claim refugee status in Japan. Far from being helped in their hour of need, they speak of being subjected to arbitrary, endless detention in prison-like immigration facilities,” said Hideaki Nakagawa, Director of Amnesty International Japan.
“Their testimonies make clear that Japan’s immigration detention system needs reform, but instead the Japanese authorities are attempting to pass an amendment bill that will enable them to carry on detaining asylum seekers and other irregular migrants by default.”
Second attempt to pass immigration bill
The Japanese government is set to imminently reintroduce an amendment bill to the country’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which allows the authorities to detain irregular migrants indefinitely. This includes people who enter to seek asylum or attempt to seek asylum after entering the country.
The bill maintains a system of default detention, which is arbitrary and a violation of international law.
The government initially submitted the amendment bill in February 2021, but withdrew it amid a public outcry over the death of a 33-year-old Sri Lankan asylum seeker, Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, in immigration detention the following month.
She was denied medical treatment despite repeatedly complaining about being in pain. She wrote numerous applications to see a doctor and asked for “provisional release”. Her handwriting in the very last application was scarcely legible.
An internal investigation in August 2022 found that officers intentionally denied her request for provisional release and, in a report investigating her death, it was revealed that officers believed that she was faking her illness to get out. The report found that the officer denied her request for provisional release “to make her understand her situation”.
The bill could be passed any time during the current parliament session, which is scheduled to run until June.
From when we wake up, we are treated like animals.Detainee at Ushiku detention centre
Amnesty International’s research is based on interviews with current and former immigration facility detainees, carried out in October and November 2022. Amnesty International also had meetings with officers from the Immigration Services Agency under the Ministry of Justice and NGO members working on immigration detention.
The interviews documented several human rights violations, including arbitrary and indefinite detention, ill-treatment by immigration officers including beatings and the use of solitary confinement, and inadequate medical care.
Japan’s refugee acceptance rate is by far the lowest of any G20 nation, with 74 applications accepted in 2021 and more than 10,000 believed to have been rejected – indicating a success rate of less than 1%.
Denial of asylum, denial of freedom
The word ‘Choubatsu’ came up repeatedly in interviews with detainees and former detainees. The word, which is equivalent to ‘punishment’ in English, is routinely used by immigration officers to punish detainees on the spot for some act they have committed. Those punished are often locked up in conditions that may amount to solitary confinement.
A Nepalese former detainee said he experienced physical abuse from officers and was placed in a ‘punishment room’ after he refused to stop an exercise session to speak to them.
“Dozens of staff members came to the scene and after being beaten and slapped, I was taken to the isolation room. I had no memory afterwards and when I came to, about six hours had passed. I also experienced isolation on a number of occasions, simply because I told them that this treatment was wrong in terms of medical care and food.”
Despite the immigration authorities’ statement that they were working to improve medical care after Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali‘s death, none of the detainees interviewed by Amnesty International said they had experienced any improvement in medical care after the investigation into her death.
One man, from Somalia, said: “From when we wake up, we are treated like animals. There is nowhere to study, nowhere to learn. There is nothing for us to do. When you stay here, your brain is washed.”
Hunger strikes and suicide attempts
One of the few ways for detainees to leave immigration centres is to secure a temporary “provisional release”. However, it is rarely granted and the process for doing so is arbitrary due to a lack of clear criteria for eligibility.
Even those who are released are unable to enjoy their basic rights as they have no financial support or ability to work, and no access to medical insurance or any kind of public assistance. Despite this, detainees said many people would take extreme measures to attempt to secure provisional release.
“The only way to get out of the immigration detention centre was to get sick or go on a hunger strike to the point of death,” one detainee said. “And even if you were allowed out on provisional release, you were only allowed out for two weeks, during which time you had to recover from your illness.”
The Immigration Service says there has been one ‘starvation death’ in the past five years.
These people’s stories highlight the need for the Japanese government to abolish automatic and prolonged immigration detention.Hideaki Nakagawa, Amnesty International Japan
According to Amnesty International’s interviews, some detainees had witnessed suicide attempts of fellow detainees, while one respondent had attempted suicide themselves. Individuals reported witnessing attempted hangings or asphyxiation, overdoses of medications, the drinking of detergent and, in one case, a man cutting his own throat.
One detainee said: “I saw a person who tried to cut his throat in an attempt to kill himself. I saw many other people who had taken [swallowed] detergent in an attempt to kill themselves.”
On 18 November 2022, an Italian man in his 50s died at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, apparently having taken his own life by hanging himself with a television power cord. The man’s provisional release permit had recently been revoked.
According to reports, 17 people have died in immigration facilities since 2007, and this was the sixth suicide.
“These people’s stories highlight the need for the Japanese government to abolish automatic and prolonged immigration detention. Any detention utilized must be for the shortest time possible, and it must be free from any cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” Hideaki Nakagawa said.
“Detainees should have the right to appeal the conditions, legality and length of detention, and receive adequate and prompt medical care in detention. The bill amendment proposed by the Japanese government achieves none of these things, and it must be scrapped and replaced with a law that treats asylum seekers and irregular migrants with dignity.”
Under international human rights law, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must benefit from a legal presumption of liberty. If they are subject to any deprivation of liberty, this must be clearly prescribed by law, strictly justified by a legitimate purpose, necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory.
The UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has noted that the indefinite detention associated with immigration control violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It also found that Japan’s detention policy constituted arbitrary detention, and that the lack of opportunity for judicial review violated the ICCPR.