Japanese immigration authorities respond to criticism

02/07/2012
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But much work still needs to be done in the matter of asylum seekers, say NGOs

TOKYO (majirox news) — Japan has been sharply criticized in the past by international bodies, including the United Nations, for its treatment of foreign nationals who were illegal residents of the country. Cases have emerged where some detainees, some of whom were detained for over a year, staged hunger strikes or even killed themselves as a result of the conditions under which they were detained at the three immigration detention centers in Ibaraki, Osaka and Nagasaki prefectures.

Such criticism has had its desired effect and the Ministry of Justice recently adopted a rule that reviews would be conducted within six months.

Since then the length of detainees’ detention while awaiting review has dropped (the majority had overstayed their visas and were waiting for deportation or reviews for asylum) and the number of cases remaining unreviewed after six months dropped from 612 in 2010 to 35 in 2011.

Hiroka Shoji of Amnesty International Japan, specializing in refugee and detention center issues, praised the Ministry of Justice for its efforts to reduce the period, calling this a “drastic reduction.”

“However, the total process to determine refugee status has become longer,” she said.

Shiho Tanaka, a spokesperson for the Japan Association of Refugees (JAR) explains, “if the first review turns down an asylum-seeker’s request, there is a right of appeal to the Ministry of Justice, which if unsuccessful, then goes to the court system. It is the first appeal within the Ministry that has created the bottleneck.”

She added that the average time to this first appeal is two years, with some detainees waiting up to five years for a judgement.

The number of asylum seekers has skyrocketed during the past few years – from 216 in 2000 to 1,700 last year. Few applications were accepted — in 2008 only 57 were accepted out of 1,599 applications – far below the norm for OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. There was also an imbalance in nationality.

Amnesty’s Shoji said, “of the acceptances about 80 percent are from Burma and the regional bias is a concern, as are the transparency and openness of the process.” Though she admits that there has been an increase in manpower and resources to deal with refugees, these resources have not kept pace with the increased demand.

“What is still lacking,” Tanaka says, “is a fast and efficient mechanism whereby the merits of asylum seekers can be judged by the immigration authorities.”

Growing cooperation between authorities and NGOs, such as a conference held in Seoul, Korea, last year where Japanese and Korean NGOs and Japanese authorities worked on reform measures, as well as the recent efforts by the Ministry of Justice to speed up aspects of the process, point to some positive changes in attitude by the authorities in these matters.

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