Lecture: Visits to Foreigners Arrested in an Immigration Jail

Saito Shinji (deacon of Saitama diocese)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 127 / August 20th, 2005

Mr. Saito was ordained a deacon in 2003 and three months later his bishop of Saitama diocese gave him the mission of visiting the foreign prisoners of Immigration jail of Ushiku. This is an editing of a lecture given by him at the ordinary session of the Melchizedec group in Kojimachi Catholic Church. Shibata Yukinori of the Jesuit Social Center is the rapporteur.

I am now 63 years old and, practically, was never involved in this type of social action. I cannot, easily, become friendly with people. I don’t know English and I don’t have a driving license. In my ordination as deacon I promised obedience to my bishop and that’s why I accepted his orders. The priest that ordinary visited the Immigration jail returned to Spain, his home country, and I took over the task after him.

I started visiting 4 prisoners twice a month, but the word passed around and soon 11 persons wanted to see me, so I ended going to the jail twice every week.

I realized, among other things, that almost nobody knows about this jail. The Justice Ministry tries to keep it unknown, but I speak about this matter everywhere in churches.

Strict Control on Foreigners

Maybe you are aware of the situation confronting foreigners. Recently, especially in the Metropolitan area, foreigners are being hunted everywhere they go.

Several years ago, Iranians and other foreigners, living in Ueno Park, were caught without official documentation, but the police sometimes released them if their employers or other reliable persons became guarantors. This is not true any more, especially after the famous labels put on foreigners by governor Ishihara: “Crimes done by foreigners have increased together with the increase of people from outside. Security in Japan is at stake”. The Japanese government holds the same opinion and plans to expel 120,000 “illegals” (overstayers) in 5 years from now on. Immigration guess is that there are, at present, 230,000 overstayers and wishes to reduce them to just half their numbers. Immigration officials and the police are firmly resolved to arrest as many as possible.

There are cases of foreigners being arrested in the train or Filipinos addressing each other in Tagalog going home from mass. There is an Indian priest that is scared because the police often call on him. This is happening everywhere.

Catholic Churches are particularly targeted, because people of various nationalities gather there. Sometimes plain-clothes policemen have attended parties of Peruvian people in the Church taking photos there and Filipinos returning home after the night Christmas mass have also been arrested in the past.

Most foreigners arrested, about 20,000 a year (?), are forcefully sent back home, but some cannot return, because they cannot obtain an air ticket or their lives are in danger in case they go back. Others do not like to go back. They have been working in Japan for many years and their children, born here, only know Japan and the Japanese language. If they were to be sent back they could not possibly find a job and their families would be destroyed.

Immigration Jails

Japanese Immigration runs 3 jails for foreign prisoners. One in East Japan for 700 persons (Ibaragi prefecture, Ushiku City), a second one in West Japan for 550 persons (Osaka, Ibaraki City) and the third one for 700 persons (Nagasaki prefecture, Omura City). Prisoners are separated from their families, men and women are put in different buildings and children are kept in children’s homes. People arrested are immediately sent to jail without time to look for their belongings and apartments.

The rooms are either 10 persons to a 10 tatami room or 5 persons to a 5 tatami room. There are also narrow single rooms for those unable to be together with others. There is no privacy and all they receive is 5 blankets. They get up at 8:00 AM and have three meals in their rooms — the food is given through a small window in the door — and are allowed to do some exercise for 30 minutes in the playground. During the day, at fixed times, they move to a common room and are allowed to have a shower in the afternoon. At 4:30 PM they have to return to their rooms again. Permission can be obtained to make international calls to their families.

People living in the same room feel sleepy, but they cannot sleep because others are talking. They fight together because of the TV programs they want to see, or the order given to make international phone calls, the space to dry the clothes, the cleaning of toilets, etc. People get sick because of the food and pressures of life in jail.

Due to insomnia and stress, sometimes people become also mentally sick. I knew, for instance, a man mentally unstable who tried several times to hang himself. In the middle of our conversation he will tell me, “I must leave to meet with my daughter,” and no matter his wife will tell him to come to his senses he will reply, out of his mind, “I sleep every evening with my daughter.” I couldn’t stop crying at that. Why such useless suffering?

 A Life Without Joy

Some people remain in jail for more than 3 years. In other prisons there are opportunities to learn jobs or to get some income out of one’s work. In jails for foreigners there is nothing to do. The reason could be that, such people are not supposed to be in Japan and to offer them ‘jobs’ is to recognize their presence here. Those who could get out will, frankly, tell you that they have always lived in anxiety without knowing when could they be able to leave and meet with their families. Many become mentally sick.

There is nothing to do. They always see the same faces and there are no new subjects to hold a conversation even with friends.

The few windows of the jail are of frosted glass and nothing outside can be seen. Is it needed to keep the prisoners as if they were animals in a cage? People in such circumstances usually enjoy only food. This is not the case. The meals are just lunch boxes with fish or meat and since they distribute them to more that 400 persons they are usually cold. There is no consideration at all regarding likes or religious customs.

Visits are always delightful. In order to reach the meeting place prisoners have to go through 7 different doors and gradually their hearts open with hope. The day of a visit is always a special day. Some people meet several prisoners at the same time, but I try to meet them personally. This way privacy can be kept.

Letters are most welcomed. Letters are opened in front of the prisoner to assure him on the content and then immigration checks them and gives them next morning. The sending off letters follows similar requirements. With regard to phone calls prisoners cannot receive them, but only make them.

Each building has only a phone that can be used with telephone cards. Calls are requested with a fixed order and only the international company of KDDI, the most expensive line, can be used.

Requirements to Leave

People who cannot afford to buy a plane ticket try to gather the money from friends or relatives, by making phone calls or writing letters. About 70,000 yen will be required from persons of Asian countries, but in the case of Latin American people it will be double of that. On top of that, the cheapest way will be to go through the USA, but due to new strict immigration rules, transit visas are difficult to get and many Latin Americans have to go around Europe (Madrid) at a very expensive cost.

There are people who apply for refugee status complaining of persecution in their own countries. The result is always negative, no matter how many times they apply. It is well known that Japan does not accept refugees. Last year only 10 people received refugee status. These are the usual figures and they cannot be compared with those of other western countries that accept refugees by the thousands, even now.

Legally speaking there is always a possibility of bringing one’s case to the tribunals, but this will require the use of lawyers with all the cost included in the process.

Of course, there is a system to support poor people, but it is not easy to find dedicated lawyers, because they are too busy and few. Court cases are rare. On the other hand, trials take a lot of time and the time in jail is extended, with practically no hope of success.
There are some who ask for a special status of residence that is, seldom, given to foreigners of good standing that have stayed in Japan for long years. Few get that.

Provisional Release

There is a system called “provisional release” for those who want to leave jail. They need a guarantor, a place to live and deposit of money. The quantities vary according to cases. The cheapest will be around 200 or 300 thousand yen. I knew a case last year of an Iranian married to a Japanese who had to pay 3 million yen. I had a case of a Bangladeshian also married to a Japanese and they were asked to pay 2 million yen, a quantity that they had never seen in their lives. They could collect 1 million yen and had to sign a paper promising that they will pay the rest. The husband finally received his visa happily.

His case is a sad one. He was seriously working in a construction company and fell in love with a Japanese girl. They married but it took over two months to register the marriage in the public office due to lack of official documents. Then, when he went to immigration to ask for a spouse visa, he had again to go back and forth, all the way from Hachioji to Shinagawa, because they asked him new documents. He was an overstayer and they put him in immigration jail. The promise was to release him after 2 months but he had to stay there for over a year. In fact, there are very strict conditions regarding provisional release and the restrictions on jobs and movement of the persons are big. On paper, guarantors are demanded all kinds of tasks. I’m guarantor of several people and should I be obliged to comply with every single article demanded I couldn’t become a guarantor any more.

The reasons for provisional release are usually special physical or mental diseases or extremely too long detention. But, the rule is the denial of a release. Since the status of ‘illegality’ does not change, there are so many restrictions put on those provisionally released that they can hardly find work. Provisional release is limited to 30 days, so that once every month people have to go to immigration to renew it, always in danger of being brought to jail again. The movement of their action is restricted to a fixed territory and if they want to move to other places they need special permission.

 Deportation                 

 At the beginning of last year 6 Iranians were forcefully sent back to Iran, no matter their claims that their lives could be in danger. We know the whereabouts of 2 and although all of them reached the airport of Teheran, there is no news about the other 4 persons. In case they were put into jail the information is given to the families, although neither the jail nor the time of arrest are provided. It might happen that suddenly the families are told, “your son has died.” A friend of one of the 4 persons that “disappeared” knew the telephone number of one of them. His wife answered the phone and said that Iranian immigration officials at the airport took his passport and asked him to go back for it after two days. He went to the airport but did not come back any more. She doesn’t know where he could be.

When the Japanese supporters got the news, they demanded Japanese officials to take responsibility since they were told clearly the dangers involved, but their answer was that they acted according to regulations. We understood it as if they were saying,” this immigration jail is the last step to repatriate prisoners. It is not our problem what will happen once they are back.”

Let me tell you how immigration conducted the deportation of one of the 6 Iranians. About 20 guards dressed as riot police came into the common room early morning while everybody was sleeping and held down everyone in the room, targeting the person to be deported. Then, about 6 guards involved in blankets that person and transported him to a different room. There they gave him the expelling order. But, because he behaved violently they took off his clothes leaving him only in his shorts, handcuffed him, put a rod around his wrist and brought him like that by car to Narita. It was in the middle of cold winter. Probably they gave him back his clothes before boarding the plane.

All this takes place without informing family members, lawyers or supporters, not even guarantors.

At the beginning of my activities to support these persons I begun to take care of the case of a Pakistani lady who had just given birth to a baby. She was suffering much and with the help of a lawyer we made an application so that she could be given refugee status in Japan. The lawyer made it clear to the jail authorities that should the application fail, then a trial will start to stop a deportation order. The Pakistani informed one day the lawyer of the denial of her refugee status and when the lawyer went to the jail to visit her customer, in order to prepare the trial, officials told her that the lady was not there any more. Of course, the lawyer sent a strong letter of protest to the Justice Minister. Bishop Tani also sent a protest letter, but nothing could be done.

Gross Human Rights Violations

Last summer a Pakistani man was also deported. A little later a medical doctor told me the true story. They gave him a medicine to make him daze and put him on a plane. His wife was Japanese and wanted to live in Japan together. One night they gave him the deportation order, but since he resisted violently they gave him a tranquilizer. Early morning they woke him up and giving him a pill, they brought him to the airport where he had more medicine so that he could not realize he was riding on a plane. He was sleepy all the way and when he realized it the plane had arrived at its final destination, Karachi.
There are many other similar cases, like that of a deported Indian man after being 3 years in immigration jail. When he was sent to jail he complained of stiff pain in his chest. A doctor examined him and prescribed the possibility of cancer. Immigration deported him and once back in India the diagnosis given was cancer of the lungs.

We brought the case first to the Ministry of Social Welfare. They made an inquiry and found out that there was a possibility of infection at the immigration jail. In that case, employees could have been also infected together with their families. Immigration did not like the remarks. We also asked the Ministry of Justice to check the case. After a while, we were told that in the immigration jail of Ushiku they had an X ray machine but without a technician to run it. They complained that they had applied for funds but the budget of the jail had been reduced.

Why to Assist Foreigners?

The presence of foreign people produces violation of human rights and the Ministry of Justice is unaware of that fact. Every time I speak about this issue people tell me, “Well, those persons violated Japanese law, so they should also somehow pay for it.”

The presence of foreign people produces violation of human rights and the Ministry of Justice is unaware of that fact. Every time I speak about this issue people tell me, “Well, those persons violated Japanese law, so they should also somehow pay for it.” Even accepting that, they cannot find work in their own countries and here in Japan, no matter the hardship, they can do menial jobs and send money back to their families. Japan gives work visas only to a few that hold special abilities and can make contributions to Japanese society or are employed by big companies. Such persons are few. Those who really want to work in Japan are the ones who cannot find jobs back home and need money to raise their families.

They find ways to come to Japan as tourists, because Japan wants to increase the numbers of foreign tourists, from the present 5 million to about 10 million. The problem is the official treatment given to foreigners.

There are two kinds of tourist visas. The shortest is 2 weeks and the longest 3 months. One could, maybe, find jobs during that period and get about 500 or 600 thousand yen, enough to live with some comfort back home for a year. Some persons do that in spite of the hardships involved. Of course, the pay will be low and the jobs dangerous and dirty, but no matter the high cost of living in Japan many people take the risk. The results are often overstaying the visas, attracted by the possibilities of jobs and income.

Naturally, some commit crimes but the majority are hard and serious workers. Japan is a difficult place for job seekers and the number of jobless people has increased but these young foreigners take any kind of job Japanese refuse to take. Now they are sustaining Japanese society. Is it right to make them suffer so much psychologically because they overstayed their visas?

I will be the last to complain about keeping the laws when they are implemented justly. But, in fact, violations of rights are taking place and suffering people are kept inside the jails. We go to visit them because they are waiting for us.

“Well, those persons violated Japanese law, so they should also somehow pay for it”. It is discriminatory to say that, since they violated the law it is natural that their rights can be also violated. We, Catholics, believe that all human beings are equal before God. Let’s diffuse, with our action, such human values so that many people could act together to bring to end such immigration jails.

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