Opening the “black box” of Japan’s immigration system


Japan’s immigration agency has been accused of operating in a non-transparent manner, largely because there’s no way for the public to know what’s going on inside its detention centers . Authorities are committed to improving the situation, but some people believe that greater public involvement will be needed before significant change can take place. Among them are an American documentary filmmaker and a former Japanese immigration agent.

A memorial service for a Sri Lankan woman, Wishma Sandamari, was held at a temple in Aichi Prefecture on March 6. He was followed by his younger sister, Purnima, and other followers. The day marked the first anniversary of Wishma’s death in a migrant detention center. During the six months the 33-year-old woman was detained, she repeatedly complained about her poor health, but did not receive the treatment she had requested. The Justice Department admits that in Wishma’s case, the facility’s medical system was insufficient. But his death was not the only tragedy in recent years within the walls of Japanese detention centers. Since 2007, there have been 17 deaths, including suicides.

Mano Akemi brings flowers in memory of her friend Wishma Sandamari during a ceremony held at a temple in Aichi Prefecture on the first anniversary of her death at an immigration center.

Mano Akemi, a volunteer who regularly visits detainees, met Wishma and befriended him. She was devastated by his death and is advocating for greater transparency in detention centers. “The biggest problem is the immigration system in Japan,” she says. “It’s really a black box. I think talking has been key, and I’m trying to make more people aware of this issue.”

In response to criticism surrounding Wishma’s death, Japan’s immigration agency announced 12 improvement measures, including raising awareness among staff members, strengthening facilities’ medical responses and establishing clear guidelines for granting temporary release to prisoners who suffer from health problems.

But the agency is also calling for controversial changes to Japanese immigration law. He says the current legislation creates a situation where there are more people in custody than there would otherwise be. The reason, they say, is that it allows people without a legitimate asylum claim to apply for it repeatedly to avoid deportation. Under international law, asylum seekers cannot be deported.

Thomas Ash, director of the documentary “Ushiku” is a devout Christian. He says he is on a mission to improve the situation for immigration detainees in Japan.

Thomas Ash, an American filmmaker living in Japan, recently made a documentary called “Ushiku” which urges Japanese people to face the reality of how their country’s immigration system works. He says he “started filming with the firm conviction that it is imperative to leave evidence so that if an incident occurs, it will not be possible to deny it in the future”.

In October 2019, Ash began visiting a migrant detention center in Ushiku City, Ibaraki Prefecture – one of the largest such facilities in Japan – and met with detainees on a voluntary basis. At the time, around 265 inmates were held there. There are 17 such facilities in the country, with a total capacity of nearly 3,400 inmates.

The Higashi Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, is one of the largest immigration detention centers in Japan.

During the winter of that year, Ash began secretly filming his interviews with inmates using a small camera, although recording was strictly prohibited. Visitors are allowed to meet detainees, but only with the understanding that journalistic research is prohibited. The documentary was shot over a period of approximately one year.

Photography, videotaping, and journalistic research are strictly prohibited in Japan’s migrant detention centers.

In a scene captured in the visitation room of the Ushiku facility, an asylum seeker tells Ash that he refuses to comply with his deportation order because he fears persecution if he return to their country of origin.

A detainee at the Ushiku Immigration Center explains how his family was persecuted in his home country and how immigration officials in Japan do not consider his asylum application valid.

Another scene shows a young inmate who has gone on a hunger strike.

When Ash tells the inmate, “But if you don’t drink water, you could die,” the inmate replies, “I have no choice.”

The inmate was one of several inmates at the center who went on a hunger strike around the time Ash began filming his documentary. The protest spread from spring 2019 to other facilities across the country, with a total of 235 inmates involved between June 2019 and January 2020. In June 2019, a Nigerian inmate died while on strike for hunger in a facility in Nagasaki Prefecture.

The film also contains footage that was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit brought by a former inmate who spent a total of five years in custody and was diagnosed with depression. The immigration officers explained that he had become violent while asking for tranquilizers, so they forcibly restrained him. They say the practice, known as “seiatsu” or suppression, is in accordance with facility regulations.

But Ash says, “Why did they go this far? It’s a detention center, not a prison, right? They shouldn’t be considered criminals. Even though they’re illegal residents , they have human rights.”

A detainee is held in a detention center for migrants. The procedure, known as “seiatsu” or deletion, is carried out according to the rules of the establishment.

Ash’s decision to film in secret has been criticized by support groups and some lawyers providing aid to inmates. The documentary is controversial not only because it was made secretly, breaking agency rules, but also because of the possible repercussions on inmates it features.

The immigration agency told NHK that it “considers that filming while knowing that recording is prohibited inside the facilities is an unforgivable act, no matter how much it is based on a belief personal”.

The director explains: “I myself think that the rules or the laws must be respected, but by respecting the laws or the rules, someone can also become an author.” He says he felt compelled to make the film: “This person in front of me can die. He will probably die. I had to document that reality.”

Ash says it’s essential that people know what’s really going on in Japanese detention centers. “I think there are people trying to sweep immigration and refugee issues under the rug,” he says, “as if we don’t have to think about it because it’s country issues. distant or only non-Japanese.

“It’s people who are suffering here. It’s something that really happens. I want to ask. It’s happening in your country. Are you okay?”

People line up in March to watch the documentary “Ushiku” in Shibuya, Tokyo.

The film surprised many viewers. A woman in her 20s says she was shocked at how little she knew about the issue. Another man said he was ashamed that he didn’t know the reality of what was happening in Japan and that the Japanese had to make it their problem.

Others also spoke. Kinoshita Yoichi is a former immigration officer who leads a research group that advocates for immigration reform from the outside.

Kinoshita Yoichi, a former immigration officer, pushes for transparency and open debate.

“I think the Immigration Services Agency has now realized that the days of handing out penalties without regard to public interest or concerns are over,” Kinoshita said. “The public can play a very important role in monitoring what the agency does, so it’s very important that people are interested in the matter.”

People in Japan are beginning to raise their voices on refugee causes. Local charity events and donation boxes are opening to help those displaced by the Ukraine crisis. But is the government really considering changing its immigration policies?

Justice Minister Furukawa Yoshihisa announces a new policy initiative to support people fleeing war at a news conference April 19 in Tokyo.

Justice Minister Furukawa Yoshihisa announced in April that he wanted to create a new policy called “subsidiary protection” to support people, including Ukrainians, fleeing war in their home country but not fulfilling the conditions for being recognized as refugees in Japan. .

But he also said the department would continue to support government policies proposed last year that would strengthen the agency’s power to deport people, including asylum seekers, as a way to deal with detention at long term. The government had withdrawn the proposal amid strong public opposition following Wishma’s death.

Human rights lawyers lead a protest in Tokyo’s Ginza district in April 2021 following Wishma’s death. Public protests prompted the government to suspend a plan to strengthen the immigration agency’s deportation powers.

“At present, ‘fleeing conflict’ is not sufficient reason to be recognized as a refugee in Japan, which has one of the strictest selection processes in the world,” says Takahashi Wataru, a lawyer specializing in human rights and immigration law researcher for the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. “Less than 1% of applicants are granted refugee status. The government appears to be using what appears to be a positive decision as a cover to push through its old plan, which aims to tighten its deportation policy and continues to avoid discuss the heart of the matter The government must reform its strict screening process to recognize the refugee status of people fleeing war, including Ukrainians, and end the long-term detention of asylum seekers.

UNHCR said subsidiary protection measures should not replace or undermine the refugee protection system for asylum seekers.

Opposition parties present a joint proposal on asylum applications on May 10, 2022.

Opposition parties proposed their own plan in early May. It recommends the creation of a committee of independent experts to review asylum applications, issue a court order necessary for detention, and limit extensions of the detention period to six months.

The system of indefinite detention has been criticized by the UN Human Rights Council for being inhumane. At the same time, Japanese politicians and businesses have said they are ready to embrace a more diverse society, in part because of the country’s severe labor shortage. But the confusion over immigration has only caused concern among non-Japanese residents.

Public awareness is on the rise, in part due to Wishma’s death, Ash’s documentary, and the invasion of Ukraine. Any change that does occur is likely to happen slowly, but these factors can provide momentum for reform.


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