The Jakarta Post
Foreigners held at immigration detention facilities for overstaying their visas are sharing tactics for applying for refugee status to avoid being deported, resulting in a recent sharp rise in asylum seekers, it has been learned.
Such tactics are spreading widely by word of mouth at detention centres operated by immigration control authorities, triggering a rapid increase in illegal foreign residents being granted lengthy detention periods or allowed to live provisionally outside detention facilities.
False refugee status applications of its kind have become another major concern for immigration authorities, after it was revealed last year that a system intended to help refugees coming to Japan after heinous persecution has been exploited by foreigners to falsely obtain work permits.
At the Higashi Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, a Peruvian man who has been applying for refugee status gathered about 30 immigration detainees in the same section in a lounge and held a briefing to discuss application tactics in spring 2013. The centre currently houses about 300 foreigners who have overstayed their visas.
'If you don't want to get deported, you should apply for refugee status. Even if the application is turned down, you can do it again and again,' he was quoted as saying in fluent Japanese. He also mentioned the name of a lawyer he knows.
A 28-year-old officer at the centre watching them on a surveillance camera from a separate room was worried that such inappropriate information would become widespread. The officer said he was unable to stop the Peruvian man since what he was saying was not illegal.
Facilities including the Ushiku detention centre were once known as 'places to wait for boats', in which illegal residents were temporarily held while waiting for plane tickets and passport procedures prior to deportation.
Currently, however, most of the 300 foreigners refuse to be forcibly repatriated and about 60 per cent of them have applied for refugee status. Until about 2008, detainees were sent home about two or three months after being admitted. Now most detainees are not deported, and some are held at such facilities for more than five years, according to sources.
Detention centre officials are tasked with persuading them to return home, but few agree, they said. 'I am actually not a refugee, but I do not want to return home because I want to work in Japan,' a detainee was quoted as saying.
An Iranian national who said he was a former Muslim who converted to Christianity applied for refugee status because of fears of being persecuted after returning home. After making the application, he fasted during Ramadan.
Unlike people in prison, those at detention centres can eat whenever they like, use fixed phones and are not assigned work. They can read books in their rooms, watch TV and even play table tennis and soccer. They can also receive free medical treatment.
When a screening for refugee status is protracted, some detainees are given provisional release. Such detainees can live outside detention centres on certain conditions, such as checking in with immigration authorities every one or two months.
About 270 detainees were temporarily released from the Ushiku centre last year. 'We can have nice meals here and get our cavities treated. By staying here for about six months, we may be given provisional release,' a detainee was quoted as saying.
For refugees fearing persecution in their home countries, the suspension of repatriation and conditional release is an important humanitarian system.
However, there is no end to the number of applicants falsely claiming to be refugees.
Two homeless Philippine nationals sent to this detention centre last year said staying there was better than returning home. They had both applied for refugee status.
Detainees making repeated refugee status applications have also been increasing, according to the sources.
'Legal proceedings are expensive but applying for refugee status is free ' no matter how many times they do so,' said a senior official at the detention centre. Such processes help them stay for longer periods, so the centres have little choice but to grant conditional release ' which leads to a vicious circle, he said.
'I really lose my patience whenever I see detainees who should be deported leaving this centre joyfully on conditional release,' said a senior official at the centre.
According to a source with the immigration authorities, 25 people were arrested in areas under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau after being temporarily released in 2012. This number rose to 60 in 2013 and 73 in 2014.
One person on conditional release was sentenced to eight years in prison for robbery resulting in bodily injury. As a rule, the individual must be repatriated after the jail term is completed, but they have the option to apply for refugee status. Repatriation is suspended during the process of applying for asylum, sources said. (***)