Report: The Realities of Migrants in Japan

Ando Isamu, SJ
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue:  No. 154 / April 15th, 2010

Back in 2006 Kofi A. Annan, U.N. Secretary General at the time, presented a well thought-out report on migration to be discussed at a “high-level dialogue” on migration and development at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2006. In an article published in The Japan Times on June 11, 2006, he said:

“Ever since national frontiers were invented, people have been crossing them – not just to visit foreign countries, but to live and work there. In doing so, they have almost always taken risks, driven by a determination to overcome adversity and to live a better life.

Those aspirations have always been the motors of human progress. Historically, migration has improved the well-being not only of individual migrants but of humanity as a whole.
And that is still true. In a report that I presented last week to the U.N. General Assembly, I summarize research showing that migration, at least in the best cases, benefits not only the migrants themselves but also the countries that receive them, and even the countries they have left. How so?

In receiving countries, incoming migrants do essential jobs that a country’s established residents are reluctant to undertake. They provide many of the personal services on which societies depend. They care for children, the sick and the elderly, bring in the harvest, prepare the food, and clean the homes and offices. And they are not engaged only in menial activities…

Yes, migration can have its downside – though ironically some of the worst effects arise from efforts to control it: It is irregular or undocumented migrants who are most vulnerable to smugglers, traffickers and other forms of exploitation. Yes, there are tensions when established residents and migrants are adjusting to each other, especially when their beliefs, customs or level of education are very different. And, yes, poor countries suffer when some of their people whose skills are most needed – for instance health-care workers from southern Africa – are “drained” away by higher salaries and better conditions abroad.

But countries are learning to manage those problems, and they can do so better if they work together and learn from each other’s experience.

As long as there are nations, there will be migrants. Much as some might wish it otherwise, migration is a fact of life. So it is not a question of stopping migration, but of managing it better, and with more cooperation and understanding on all sides. Far from being a zero-sum game, migration can be made to yield benefits for all.”
(This article from ‘The Japan Times’ is available at our center.)

The Appeal Committee, aware that nowadays offices assisting poor people are filled with people seeking advice, decided to establish a consultation office at the church and recommended coordinating and supporting such work. I was sent last April to St Ignatius Church to help staff the new consultation office because of my trIn fact, although we use the expression “migrants” in Japan, there is no concept here of an “immigrant.” Thus, officially, there is no immigrant policy like in many Western countries but rather only a policy for dealing with “aliens.”

Kyodo News reports that, according to a survey made by the Tokyo Council of Social Welfare, 30% of Tokyo’s 316 elderly care facilities, in which the majority (90%) of workers are women, employed a total of 196 foreign workers. Filipinas account for more than half of these foreign caregivers, followed by Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Koreans.aining in social welfare. In fact, the steering committee of the church has been very sympathetic to the establishment of such a new office.

The Shaping of Japan’s Immigration Policy

According to a recent Report of the fifth informal Policy Consultation of the Immigration Bureau, Japan will promote the acceptance of high-level foreign medical personnel and caregivers. Japanese descendants and foreign trainees will also be accepted, and the number of foreign students will be raised to 300,000. Tourism and business exchanges with East Asia will also be promoted. On the other hand, the projected decrease in Japan’s population has forced the country to think more positively about accepting foreign labor and about improving the whole immigration system.

At the same time, the Report also points out that there is need for a drastic reduction in the number of 130,000 undocumented foreign people presently in Japan.

Last year about 1,400 persons applied for refugee status in Japan, but only a small number, 30 to be exact, were accepted as refugees. Once the application has been made, the process takes a long time, and only minimal economic assistance is available for housing, work, healthcare, and so on.

Just a month ago, on March 8, at least 70 detainees at the West Japan Immigration Control Center began a hunger strike demanding release on a temporary basis. They wanted to know why their applications for release from the Center were rejected, even though their refugee claims were being reviewed with support from lawyers and legal assistance workers. In fact, there have been reports of detainee abuse and harsh conditions at the Center going back at least a decade. According to an investigation by Kyodo News, 23 detainees at the center attempted suicide between 2000 and 2004.

The detainees halted their 11-day hunger strike after the Center reportedly agreed to meet with both detainees and activists. One of the major reasons why immigration officials changed their mind and agreed to negotiate was because the issue was raised by a politician at a meeting of the Upper House Judicial Affairs Committee on March 16. In addition, the timing of a U.N. visit may have prodded the Center into agreeing to the meeting. (‘The Japan Times,’ March 12 and 22, 2010)

Two years ago, in January 2008, I got a phone call from an East European detainee at an immigration jail asking me to visit him. He had been applying for refugee status just at the time immigration officials took him to jail. When I was allowed to visit him, he was in his third week of hunger strike. I was able to negotiate his release and he is now happily living and working in Japan. Japan has three main immigration detention centers, in Ushiku (Ibaraki prefecture), Ibaraki (Osaka prefecture), and Omura (Nagasaki), plus other big temporary centers like the one in Shinagawa, where hundreds of foreigners are detained. The one in Ushiku holds over 500 foreign prisoners. There alone dozens of Burmese claiming to be refugees have been detained in a sort of limbo for as long as a year.

A physician, Dr YAMAMURA Junpei , has spent the past decade treating foreigners in Japan – from illegal overstayers to asylum seekers. Once a month since 2002, he has visited the Immigration Center in Ushiku, where he monitors the mental and physical problems of detainees. During his monthly visits to the Center, he sees an average of seven or eight detainees, sometimes as many as ten.

Yamamura has been vocal about problems inside the detention centers, noting especially mental and physical abuse by officials as well as lack of proper medical treatment. In March 2007 he published “Namida no Kabe” (Wall of Tears) along with five others active supporters of asylum seekers, including a lawyer and a staff member from the human rights organization, Amnesty International. They hope to educate the general public on “the reality of immigration detention centers,” Yamamura said.

The first part of the book presents a general overview of the centers and points out problems regarding the treatment of detainees. It notes that anyone in violation of the Immigration Law can be detained, whether they are asylum seekers, illegal overstayers, elderly, young, pregnant, or ill. Families are torn asunder, the book says. Young children get taken away to child-welfare centers, while their mothers and fathers are locked up separately inside the detention center.

Lengthy detentions are also a major problem, the book points out, because even after deportation orders are issued for Immigration Law violators, these violators can continue to be held for an indefinite time. Locked within the detention center, the detainees have no idea what the future holds. It could be months or more than a year or two before they are given provisional release or deported back to their home country.

For people seeking asylum after fleeing their country for fear of religious or political persecution, the mental pressure and terror of being sent back is intense, “and for some asylum seekers, deportation could mean death,” Yamamura warned. (‘The Japan Times,’ May 2, 2007)

Such realities are not normally known to most people. Similar things occur when one is trying to enter Japan, as, for instance, at Narita airport. A few months ago a Filipina I know well, who is married to a Japanese man, applied for a visa so that her mother might visit Japan. The visa was given, but on her mother’s arrival in Narita she was taken to a special office, where dozens of people were investigated and deported back to the Philippines on the next plane. Nothing could be done, and I imagined she was just unlucky. Nevertheless, a few days ago I happened to come across the following article in ‘The Japan Times’ (March 23, 2010): “Degrading treatment at Narita immigration”

” I studied in Japan recently to complete my degree. My mother, an Indonesian citizen, came to visit me often while I was in Japan. Every time she arrived she would stay within the time period allotted by immigration at Narita.

One time after a vacation, I returned to Japan with her. The immigration officer accused her of trying to stay/live in the country despite our insistence that she had never stayed over the time limit allowed by immigration. In the end she was sent home.

The story did not end here. The immigration officer took her and me to a room where he questioned us. He laughed and jeered at the fact that I did not speak Japanese very well. He also laughed at us when my mother cried because she was about to be deported.”

Present Foreign Population in Japan

Japan currently has about 2,220,000 registered foreigners. Of these, 660,000 (30%) are Chinese and 590,000 (27%) are resident Koreans. They are known as “old-comers” because they, their parents, or their grandparents had arrived in Japan by the time Japan invaded China and annexed Korea. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans came to Japan as workers especially during World War II. Later, the rapid economic development of post-war Japan attracted many other people from East Asia, especially from the Philippines, to work in Japan, and in the 1990s the official policy of summoning workers with Japanese ancestry from Latin American countries brought more than 300,000 people from Brazil alone, as well as others from Peru and other South American countries.

Some Personal Experiences 

I have always felt a big gap between the attitude of ordinary Japanese people towards “alien” workers and the official stand taken by the country itself through immigration officials and the police. I have often been moved by the kindness shown by many Japanese citizens, especially when foreign workers needed help, but I cannot hide my feelings of extreme displeasure at the way immigration officials and the police often behave towards them.

The Abaya family 

I had never met the Abaya family before, but on March 19 this year a FAX reached my office from Araneta Cubao (in the Philippines). It said:

“On behalf of the Abaya family, my mother and my sisters, we would like to extend our sincerest gratitude for all the unsolicited help you have extended. Without all your support – PHYSICALLY, MENTALLY, EMOTIONALLY, FINANCIALLY and above all SPIRITUALLY, all of these will not be possible.”

The FAX goes on, but the whole issue was quite dramatic. A Filipino overstayer got sick and was diagnosed as having both livers seriously affected. It often happens that no hospital wants to accept an undocumented foreign worker without health insurance. The police were tipped off, but they could not arrest such a sick person. To be fair to them, the police looked for a hospital that finally accepted him. The hospital immediately started him on dialysis and, since he began to react positively, he wanted to return to his family in the Philippines as soon as possible. Meanwhile the hospital bill was skyrocketing. The doctors could not allow him to take a plane because his life was in danger. The official papers needed for his return were urgently drawn up, but then Immigration requested his presence and he had to be taken from his hospital bed to Shinagawa by car, an hour’s ride, because an ambulance was too expensive. In spite of his condition, the interview took practically the whole day. Maybe this was a normal legal situation, but how different from common-sense standards!

A Vietnamese person I know well, who is living in Japan legally with his family, told me a few days ago of a friend of his who was undocumented but wanted to return to Vietnam. They set a day, but my acquaintance made a wrong move by inquiring at a police box how to get to Immigration. He said that two policemen almost jumped on them and seized them. They interrogated them and then sent them off in a police car to the big Ayase police station, where the interrogation continued for some two hours. My acquaintance had to act as interpreter for his friend, who could not speak much Japanese.

Finally, they were released and told how to reach Immigration. But when they changed trains at a station still far from Immigration in Shinagawa, there were two police officers standing there who interrogated them again and handcuffed the undocumented Vietnamese. The other one was told to go back home because the police would bring his friend to Immigration. To say the least, everything was quite overdone.

United Nations Rights Rapporteur in Japan for an Official Inspection

I could continue forever, but let me mention the recent official visit to Japan of a U.N. expert on the rights of migrants. According to the Japanese mass media, Jorge Bustamante, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants came to Japan on March 23 for an official inspection. He interviewed migrants and their families and discussed the various issues with ministry and agency officials. Bustamante expressed concern over the separation of families due to deportation orders and made clear that his findings were going to be made public when he submits a report on Japan to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights sometime before the end of the year. Bustamante’s main responsibilities include examining ways of overcoming obstacles to the protection of the human rights of migrants.

Bustamante held a press conference on March 31 and outspokenly urged the Japanese government to terminate its program for overseas industrial trainees and technical interns, saying it might amount to “slavery” in some cases, fueling demand for exploitative cheap labor in violation of human rights. He proposed replacing that program with a program of employment.

Some Proposals

Lastly, let me return to the article of U.N. former General Secretary Annan mentioned above.

As long as there are nations, there will be migrants. Much as some might wish it otherwise, migration is a fact of life. So it is not a question of stopping migration, but of managing it better, and with more cooperation and understanding on all sides. Far from being a zero-sum game, migration can be made to yield benefits for all.

The Catholic Church in Japan has already had long experience in this field. In fact, half or maybe even more than half of our Catholic population consists of foreign people. I am sure that readers of this Bulletin can certainly share many fruitful experiences from their own contacts with “aliens” living and working in Japan. In writing this article my aim has been to initiate some direct dialogue with people providing pastoral care for foreign Christian communities in Japan as well as with people attending to their educational and other personal needs; and, hopefully, with people more directly involved in advocacy work. This is a global issue that seriously affects all East Asian countries, not only Japan.

On the other hand, since this is a Jesuit social center, I would like to invite Jesuits interested and involved in work with “migrants,” as well as their co-workers, to contact me so that we can create an open network to share experiences and information and to search for possible improvements in our commitment to better the situation of migrants in Japan. Our Center is not only open to suggestions but is also ready to launch such a network and make it work with your cooperation. The Center can share experiences and information about advocacy, pastoral and educational methods, and other such concerns. We also need to explore together the possibilities of cooperation with Jesuit structures that are being set up in the East Asian Assistancy. I hope many will want to share their experiences for the benefit of “migrants” living and working in Japan.

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