Mandatory detention is a controversial practice which features in the immigration policy of many countries. This is despite strong criticism as to its consistency with UN Refugee Convention requirements and a wealth of research proving its damaging effect on the mental health of detained refugees. In Japan, detention is mandatory for illegal immigrants and visa over-stayers.
Recently, I visited detainees at Nagoya Immigration Centre together with Ms. Y – a passionate Japanese supporter of people in detention (and vocal activist against Japan’s inhumane detention system). Ms. Y has worked tirelessly to support, encourage and advocate for people detained at Nagoya Immigration Centre for almost two years. Recently retired, she dedicates two days every week to visiting detainees who request her assistance. At any one time, this may number at about forty individuals.
At the lack of any government backed services to support and advocate for detainees, committed volunteers, known within refugee circles as 支援者 (supporters) , often become the central contact point connecting those behind bars with outside society. As Ms. Y explains, such an extreme lack of support structures means that volunteers must work extra hard to address the complex range of needs they are presented with. On any given day this might involve:
- counselling (providing advice on life/social matters, assessing mental health condition);
- legal advocacy (accompanying detainees to court hearings, consulting with lawyers);
- education (educating on rights and the legal procedure in Japan);
- rights activism (regular reporting to Ministry of Immigration and advocating on behalf of detainees in relation to specific incidents experienced within detention centre such as bullying);
- interpreting (interpreting between English and Japanese);
- social work (linking with relevant support/health services, supporting families of detainees).
Of the ten or so supporters I’ve met so far, all have shared with me a deep sense of frustration and hopelessness at the Japanese detention system. A system which many have fought for years to change but which remains in dire need of reform.
According to Ms. Y, there are three general categories of people detained in the Nagoya Immigration Centre. First, there are the migrant workers, many of whom were brought here by the Japanese government during Japan’s economic glory days. After the bubble burst, unable to renew their visas, many decided to stay on illegally and work primarily in factory/production line jobs. This group of people are often detained as a result of police raids on work places with a large foreign labor force.
Second, there are those who are awaiting deportation due to committing a criminal offence. Many have spent time in custody and after losing their visa as a result of being charged for the offence, are not permitted to re-enter Japanese society before deportation.
The final group of individuals are those claiming to be refugees. Japanese law stipulates that any person wishing to file a claim for refugee protection must do so within 6 months of their arrival in Japan. For a number of reasons, many fail to do this. Unable to return to their home countries, they become visa overstayers and often work illegally until they are identified and arrested by the Japanese authorities.
In the following entries, I will give an account of my meetings with refugees currently in detention.