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Japan immigration

Hunger strikes spread in Japan's migrant detention centers

Deportees resort to extreme measures as more are held over six months

A Tokyo detention center run by the regional immigration bureau: More than half of the 1,253 detainees awaiting deportation have been held in such facilities for at least six months.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- While Japan opens its arms to foreign workers to alleviate a labor shortage, a quiet crisis is brewing at its detention centers for those facing deportation.

A growing number of detainees have been held half a year or longer, and many are resorting to hunger strikes in a desperate attempt to escape limbo.

"I may collapse tomorrow, but I want to go outside," a 41-year-old Iranian said in November at a detention facility in Ibaraki Prefecture. He had sunken cheeks and needed to be wheeled into the visiting room.

The man had lost 10 kg after only drinking water for two weeks. He had spent most of the time sleeping, or at the doctor's office if he was in pain, he said.

He first came to Japan in 2006. But he received a deportation order after joining an Iranian criminal gang as a driver and was transferred to the facility immediately after completing his prison sentence. He later filed for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution.

"I can't bear being locked up here anymore," he said. He had been at the facility for four years.

The Iranian is not alone in going to extremes. In June, a Nigerian man at a Nagasaki facility became the first to starve himself to death. Detainees on hunger strike increased 15 times to 106 between June 1 and July 21, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan. Thirty-six were still refusing to eat as of late September.

The 67-year-old volunteer notes how detainees are doing after visiting them at the Ibaraki facility. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

"This is the worst it's ever been," said a 67-year-old volunteer who has worked at the Ibaraki center for more than two decades. "More people are becoming mentally unstable."

Most hunger strikers hope to be released, even if only temporarily. Detainees requiring medical attention may be granted provisional leave under certain conditions and with guarantors, though most are later returned to detention facilities.

The growing crisis stems partly from people remaining in detention longer. Out of 1,253 detainees awaiting deportation across 17 facilities as of late June, 679 had been there at least six months -- either because they refuse to leave or because their home countries will not take them. The number has increased 130% since late 2014.

One 58-year-old South Korean is among those refusing to leave. During a stay in Japan for business in 2009, the man learned that he could be arrested upon returning home because of his involvement in a pro-democracy movement as a student. He was detained after overstaying his visa and was granted provisional leave in 2012 after a hunger strike.

"I want people to know that some of us have no choice but to stay here because of extenuating circumstances," he said.

A permit for provisional release from detention: The 58-year-old in the picture says he cannot return to South Korea because he will be arrested. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

The Immigration Services Agency sees more deportation as the solution. With around 40% of those refusing to leave Japan having criminal records, and many fleeing or committing crimes while on provisional leave, "we cannot rule out that the system is being abused," the agency says.

But it is concerned by the number of hunger strikes. The agency is providing counseling and other emotional support for detainees and set up an expert panel to provide recommendations by late March.

"There are cases where provisional leave cannot be granted due to security concerns," said Hiroko Akizuki, professor of international law at Asia University here. "But the length of detention and conditions at detention facilities in Japan have been criticized internationally, and there needs to be improvement in regard to human rights."

The number of foreigners living in Japan increased for a seventh straight year to 2.82 million as of the end of June and is only expected to grow now that the government has launched new visa categories for foreign workers. Meanwhile, questions linger regarding the treatment of long-term detainees.

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