Ex-immigration boss: detentions too long

llegal residents should not be held in detention for more than one year because any longer causes too much stress, a former chief of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau said, noting extended incarceration led to two hunger strikes at detention centers this year, one of which followed suicides.

“One year of confinement is mentally tough,” Hidenori Sakanaka, now director general of the independent think tank Japan Immigration Policy Institute, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “If that becomes a rule, bureau officials will try really hard to investigate thoroughly whether detainees warrant deportation or temporary release. They will work efficiently.”

He said he was unsure if applying a one-year rule would lead to an increase in detainees being granted temporary release or would trigger a rise in deportations, but added, “the Immigration Bureau must stop suicides and hunger strikes.”

There is no limit on how long the government can hold foreign residents deemed to be in Japan illegally. The Immigration Bureau’s Enforcement Division said 71 inmates out of 442 being held in three detention centers in Ibaraki, Osaka and Nagasaki prefectures had been confined for more than a year as of May 31.

Dozens of detainees went on hunger strikes lasting more than a week at the East Japan Immigration Control Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, in May and at the West Japan Immigration Control Center in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, in March. They were demanding better treatment, including limiting their incarceration to six months.

The Ushiku inmates also demanded lowered bail for temporary release. A support group for people applying for refugee status said bail typically ranges between ¥500,000 and ¥800,000, but can be less than ¥200,000.

The immigration law stipulates bail must not exceed ¥3 million.

The hunger strikes failed to win any concessions.

The Ushiku center didn’t make any promises, said Mitsuru Miyasako of the inmate support group Bond.

The hunger strike followed two inmate suicides at the center. A Brazilian man hanged himself in February and a South Korean did likewise in April. The Brazilian had been confined three months and the South Korean six months, their supporters said.

“We will try to gauge the detainees’ mental health” to prevent suicides, said Tetsuro Isobe of the Immigration Bureau’s Enforcement Division. Plastic bags, which were used in both suicides, will also be banned, he said.

“We will also be flexible in handling the situation and try to reduce the duration of detention and the amount of bail,” he said. “Hunger strikes disturb the bureau’s operations and thus are inappropriate for making demands.”

On holding people younger than age 18, Isobe said the Immigration Bureau tries its best to find appropriate guardians for minors who are deportation candidates. If it can’t find them, detention is the only option, he added.

In addition to the three centers for long-term confinement, the Immigration Bureau has short-term cells in 16 regional bureaus where officers investigate to determine if illegal residents should be deported or released. Deportation candidates are moved to one of the three detention centers.

If those in the centers refuse to be deported or their countries of origins decline to accept them, confinement typically drags on, Sakanaka said. Iran tends to refuse deportees, including drug dealers and others convicted of other crimes in addition to overstaying their visas, he said.

Some detainees, including refugee applicants, petition for special permission to stay and await court decisions, becoming longtime detainees in the process, he said.

Another problem is that detention centers can’t release longtime inmates because the Immigration Bureau can’t keep track of them if they don’t have guarantors or people for emergency contact, Sakanaka said.

He said detention centers and the Immigration Bureau must give an explanation to the public about the suicides, hunger strikes and the treatment of detainees, and also explain how a Ghanaian man who was overpowered by immigration officers while being placed on a jetliner for deportation from Narita airport in March died on the plane in handcuffs.

Sakanaka, who headed the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau from April 2002 to March 2005, said he worked hard to disclose how detainees were treated and allowed them to make phone calls freely during the day. Other regional bureaus and detention centers followed suit after him, he said.

When the bureau integrated operations in Jujo and Otemachi, Tokyo, into the new building in Shinagawa in February 2003, it was a chance for him to overhaul operations, he said.

In addition to allowing phone calls, he abolished the practice of having a bureau officer present when a detainee has a visitor.

The eased arrangement allowed inmates to feel safe telling people outside the bureau the truth about their treatment and other things, and the bureau saves on manpower. He also stopped bureau officers from looking at letters addressed to detainees.

“I thought making immigration offices open will make them better,” he said. “Hunger strikes would not have been public information if inmates had not been allowed to make phone calls. The incidents give the Immigration Bureau a chance to improve itself.”