NGOs target immigration center

NGOs target immigration center

West Japan facility under fire over human rights abuses

 

By ERIC JOHNSTON

Staff writer

The Japan Times April 30, 2002

 

                    OSAKA -- Amid concerns over allegations of human rights abuses at the West

                    Japan Immigration Detention Center in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, local

                    nongovernmental organizations will form an immigration watchdog group later

                    this month.

 

                    The formation of the group comes just over a year after the NGOs started

                    receiving reports that detainees at the center had been mistreated and that

                    conditions there are exceptionally harsh when compared with those at

                    equivalent centers in Tokyo.

 

                    In mid-April, immigration authorities at the center refused to respond to

                    questions by Osaka-based NGOs over the treatment of detainees.

 

                    "Five Osaka NGOs, led by Rights of Immigrants Network Kansai, are banding

                    together in late April in order to track allegations of human rights abuses at the

                    West Japan Immigration Detention Center in Ibaraki and the Osaka

                    Immigration Center in central Osaka," Michitsune Kusaka of RINK said.

 

                    Since the end of March 2001, RINK and other groups involved in aiding

                    detainees have detailed several incidents, all of which have been reported by

                    the local media.

 

                    On May 7, 2001, for example, Ugandan Samuel Daka claimed he was beaten

                    by guards at the Ibaraki center after he refused to be placed in solitary

                    confinement. He later filed a lawsuit in the Osaka District Court.

 

                    On Oct. 16, guards at the center bound a Chinese detainee in a blanket and

                    tried to put him on a plane to China. Upon seeing his condition, however, the

                    pilot refused to take off, forcing authorities to take him back to the center.

 

                    Just two weeks later, immigration authorities reported that a detained

                    Vietnamese man had committed suicide.

 

                    "It has been common at the center for the administration to ignore the length of

                    confinement specified on the immigration detention order," wrote Daka in a

                    letter to the local media after the Vietnamese death. "A number of refugees,

                    students, Asians and others have been detained for more than a year with no

                    provisions of bail or clear explanations of why they have to be deported."

 

                    Two detainees who have been held at the center for nearly two years are

                    Ethiopians Gezahgne Seyoum Abebe and his wife, Yewubdar Tsegaye

                    Sailedingel, both of whom are trying to get refugee status.

 

                    Gezahgne first came to Japan on a six-month visa in September 1996 as a

                    Japan International Cooperation Agency trainee. In spring 1997, however, he

                    got an urgent phone call from his wife, who said the political situation had

                    deteriorated and Ethiopia was no longer safe.

 

                    He stayed in Japan illegally until his wife joined him on a three-month tourist

                    visa in spring 1999.

 

                    The couple worked illegally in the Nagoya area until September 1999, when

                    friends persuaded them to seek political asylum in Japan through the Tokyo

                    office of Amnesty International.

 

                    After their applications were rejected in December of that year, they were

                    placed in the Nagoya detention center, and later moved to the Ibaraki facility.

 

                    "Appeals to have them released into the custody of their Japanese friends and

                    supporters have all been turned down," said Juri Yukita, a lawyer representing

                    the couple.

 

                    "Given that they applied for refugee status after they had overstayed their visas,

                    it is going to be very difficult to get the courts to grant them refugee status."

 

                    The Abebes' health has been of particular concern to their Japanese supporters.

                    Since May 2000, the Abebes have reportedly suffered a variety of ailments,

                    including diarrhea, stomach pains, headaches and a toothache.

 

                    "In particular, Mrs. Abebe is in a bad way," Yukita said.

 

                    "Last May, she suffered severe stomach cramps and was placed in solitary

                    confinement for three days. When the couple complained, they were told by

                    immigration officials that their ailments could not be treated in Japan, but could

                    be treated in Ethiopia if they returned."

 

                    Other inmates have also told Kusaka, Yukita and other supporters that, under a

                    U.N. treaty, detainees should be allowed to partake in some exercise every

                    day. In fact, detainees at the Ibaraki center are only allowed to go outside three

                    times a week for 30 minutes each time.

 

                    Furthermore, even though they are married, the Abebes are held in separate

                    rooms and are allowed to see each other only for 30 minutes every Saturday.

 

                    The center is divided into four blocks -- two for men, one for women and one

                    for detainees who are to be deported.

 

                    Each block features a large common room and sleeping quarters that can hold

                    up to 10 detainees each. Inmates are told not to move between one block and

                    another.

 

                    "Inmates have reported that they remain confined to their rooms, unlike Tokyo

                    immigration centers, where inmates can move freely between blocks,"

                    remarked Miwa Nakatsu, a local resident who has joined a support group for

                    the Abebe couple.

 

                    "Detainees are also supposed to get exercise for 30 minutes, four times a week.

                    However, there have also been reports that exercise is limited to 15 to 20

                    minutes."

 

                    Citing privacy reasons, detention center officials refused to comment on specific

                    allegations of human rights' abuses, but they did not deny some have occurred.

 

                    They did admit, however, that not all of the detainees receive a full 30 minutes

                    of outdoor exercise.

 

                    "Outdoor exercise normally takes place four times a week, but sometimes, such

                    as in bad weather, the time is shortened," said Masanobu Ishida, assistant

                    director of the center.

 

                    "Also, not all detainees always choose to go outside for the full 30 minutes."

 

                    The NGOs have also aired concerns over the inmates' diet. They charge that

                    meals do not contain sufficient vitamins, and detainees have long complained

                    about the food's taste.

 

                    In response, Ishida said, "We will soon make changes in the menu to make the

                    food better."

 

                    Renko Kitagawa, a Lower House member of the Social Democratic Party who

                    has researched conditions at immigration detention centers throughout the

                    country, noted that criticism of Japan's facilities is widespread.

 

                    "The U.N. advised the Japanese government in 1998 to review its internment

                    policy and bring it in line with the U.N. treaty," he said.

 

                    "Noncompliance with the treaty means not following the law. However, there

                    have been few changes. Japan's immigration centers are not centers but jails.

                    The country has a long way to go to reach international standards."

 

                    Kusaka agreed with this assessment, saying, "That's why it's important that this

                    watchdog group be formed.

 

                    "With so many foreigners now coming to live and work in Japan illegally, often

                    at the encouragement of Japanese firms, the abuse in detention centers has

                    grown to become a major human rights problem for Japan."

 

                    The Japan Times: April 20, 2002

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