Meandering through poorly lit passages I enter a dark, cheerless room organised in rows of tables and chairs. ‘I’ve asked them so many times to turn on some of the lights, but they refuse. They tell me it’s to save electricity but it’s just ridiculous sitting in the dark…’ Ms. Y mutters. She points to a plain-clothed middle aged man sitting by himself in the corner, ‘He’s a government employee’ she whispers in my ear. ‘He’s here to spy on everyone coming into the room’.
I’ve entered the Nagoya Immigration Centre, a multi-storey building – unassuming from the outside, but a symbol of loss of freedom and hope for so many who have entered through its doors.
We proceed into the Visitation of Detainees section, stopping to fill out an application for visitation and I handover my alien registration card to be returned upon completion of the visit. As we wait for approval we are approached twice more by officers to clarify details which we’ve clearly indicated on our forms. A means of further screening our motivations? Eventually we’re approved and escorted by elevator up to the next level.
Security here is tight. All belongings must be left in a locker (other than pen and paper) and we are only permitted to talk with detainees in a small booth divided by a thick layer of glass. I’ve never been to a prison, but I’ve seen enough movies to know this is as close as it gets. Visitors are restricted to only 10 minutes with each detainee, however this can be extended to 30 at special request (Generally in the case of close family or friends, or at the first visit). Today, we will be meeting with two detainees at 10 minutes each.
Detainee 1 (D1) is a new arrival to the centre who was detained twelve days prior and has just submitted his first application for refugee protection this morning. A gentle looking man in his late 30′s, it’s his eyes that give us an immediate insight into his situation. They cry with sadness but sparkle with the hope of a man who can taste the chance of a new beginning through refugee protection.
D1 arrived in Japan four years ago after fleeing his home country, leaving behind his wife and three children aged 8-16. At home, he worked as a school teacher and Provincial Government Minister, a position which in the volatile political climate of his home country rendered him the target of opposition and rebel group attacks. He was captured, tortured and left for dead. As he recounts his story (the abridged 10 minute version) he reveals the scars of his ordeal, pointing out the horrific physical remains of violence endured and divulging the emotional pain of leaving his family behind.
Since arriving in Japan D1 has lived in another prefecture for about four years, working illegally in a factory and relying on other foreign workers to survive. When he lost his position due to company cutbacks earlier this year, he decided to move to Nagoya in search of more work. He moved in with friends and two days later, was arrested when police raided the apartment.
I asked D1 why he hadn’t applied for refugee protection as soon as he entered Japan. This would have allowed him to bypass any detention requirements and overall give him a much better chance of a positive outcome. His reply seemed genuine – he simply didn’t know. He didn’t know it was a possibility or how he might begin to go about it.
On account of his experiences in his home country, and the fact that he continues to fear for his life there, D1 appears on face-value to satisfy all UN criteria to meet the definition of a refugee.
He is hopeful.
But he is also naive.
He doesn’t understand Japan’s system like the others who have been slapped by its injustice time and time again.
When our 10 minutes was up I asked Ms. Y what his chances would be. ‘He’ll be rejected’ she sighed, without hesitation, ‘No-one from his country has ever been approved for refugee status and the government aren’t about to start now’.
I hope he can hold onto that sparkle in his eye. He’ll almost certainly need it in times to come.