Japan: Government attempting to increase detention of asylum-seekers in ‘prison-like’ conditions

Repressive new bill would allow indefinite detention for irregular migrants and people seeking asylum

Migrants tell Amnesty of harsh conditions in detention centres, with hunger strikes and people attempting to take their own lives

‘From when we wake up, we are treated like animals’ - man from Somalia

‘Migrants have painted a grim picture of what it’s like to claim refugee status in Japan’ - Hideaki Nakagawa

Ahead of the Japanese government’s latest attempt to push through repressive legislation that will increase its powers to indefinitely detain migrants, people seeking asylum have spoken out about the inherent cruelty of the country’s immigration system, with Amnesty International speaking to more than 30 migrants and those seeking asylum.

Some people have been held for several years in extremely harsh immigration detention conditions, which has driven a number of detainees to go on hunger strike and even - in some cases - seen detainees attempted to take their own lives.

Their disturbing testimonies come as the Japanese parliament considers a new amendment to the country’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which would allow the authorities to detain irregular migrants indefinitely. This would include people who enter Japan to seek asylum or attempt to seek asylum after entering the country. The bill sees detention as a default option, which is arbitrary and a violation of international law.

The Government initially submitted the bill in early 2021, but withdrew it amid a public outcry over the death of 33-year-old Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali in immigration detention, an asylum-seeker from Sri Lanka.  Sandamali was repeatedly denied medical treatment despite complaining about being in pain. She wrote numerous applications to see a doctor and asked for “provisional release”. The following year, an internal investigation into her death found that officers intentionally denied her request, with officials accusing her of faking her illness.

Based on interviews with current and former immigration facility detainees, and officers from the Immigration Services Agency under the Ministry of Justice, as well as NGO members working on immigration detention issues, Amnesty found that human rights violations within the immigration system included arbitrary and indefinite detention, ill-treatment by immigration officers - including beatings and the use of solitary confinement - and inadequate medical care.

Immigration officers routinely punish detainees on the spot for alleged misdemeanours, while those punished are often locked up in conditions that may amount to solitary confinement. One Nepalese former detainee said he experienced physical abuse from officers and was placed in a “punishment room” after he refused to stop an exercise. He said:

“Dozens of staff members came to the scene and after being beaten and slapped, I was taken to the isolation room. I had no memory afterwards and when I came to, about six hours had passed. I also experienced isolation on a number of occasions, simply because I told them that this treatment was wrong in terms of medical care and food.”

Despite the immigration authorities’ claims that they have worked to improve medical care after Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali‘s death, none of the detainees interviewed by Amnesty said they had experienced any improvement in medical care since the investigation into her death.

One man from Somalia said:

“From when we wake up, we are treated like animals. There is nowhere to study, nowhere to learn. There is nothing for us to do. When you stay here, your brain is washed.”

Japan’s refugee acceptance rate is by far the lowest of any G20 nation, with only 74 applications accepted in 2021 and more than 10,000 believed to have been rejected - indicating a success rate of less than 1%.  

Hideaki Nakagawa, Amnesty International Japan’s Director, said:

“Migrants have painted a grim picture of what it’s like to claim refugee status in Japan. Far from being helped in their hour of need, they speak of being subjected to arbitrary, endless detention in prison-like immigration facilities.

“Their testimonies make clear that Japan’s immigration detention system needs reform, but instead the Japanese authorities are attempting to pass an amendment bill that will enable them to carry on detaining asylum-seekers and other irregular migrants by default.

“These people’s stories highlight the need for the Japanese government to abolish automatic and prolonged immigration detention.

“Any detention must be for the shortest time possible and it must be free from any cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“Detainees should have the right to appeal the conditions, legality and length of detention, and receive adequate and prompt medical care in detention. The bill amendment proposed by the Japanese government achieves none of these things, and it must be scrapped and replaced with a law that treats asylum-seekers and irregular migrants with dignity.”

Hunger strikes and attempts to take one’s own life
One of the few ways for detainees to leave immigration centres is to secure a temporary “provisional release”, which is rarely granted and the process is arbitrary due to a lack of clear criteria for eligibility. Even those who are released are unable to enjoy their basic rights as they have no financial support or ability to work, and no access to medical insurance or any kind of public assistance. Despite this, detainees said many people would take extreme measures to attempt to secure provisional release.

One detainee said:

“The only way to get out of the immigration detention centre was to get sick or go on a hunger strike to the point of death and even if you were allowed out on provisional release, you were only allowed out for two weeks, during which time you had to recover from your illness.”

The Immigration Service claims there has been one “starvation death” in the past five years in the immigration system, yet detainees told Amnesty that they saw various attempts by detainees to take their own lives, witnessing attempted hangings or asphyxiation, overdoses, cases of people drinking detergent and, in one case, a man cutting his own throat. One person Amnesty spoke to said that they too had attempted to kill themselves.

One detainee said:

“I saw a person who tried to cut his throat in an attempt to kill himself. I saw many other people who had taken [swallowed] detergent in an attempt to kill themselves.”

On 18 November 2022, an Italian man in his 50s died at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau after apparently hanging himself with a television cable. The man’s provisional release permit had recently been revoked. According to reports, 17 people have died in immigration facilities since 2007.

Under international human rights law, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers must benefit from a legal presumption of liberty. If they are detained it must be clearly recommended in law and strictly justified by a legitimate, necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory purpose. The UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that Japan's detention policy constitutes arbitrary detention, and that the lack of opportunity for judicial review violates international law.

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