Posted on December 2, 2004

For Visa Violators, It Pays To Come Clean

Masami Ito, Japan Times Online, Dec. 1

In June 2000, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman was deported from Japan for overstaying his visa. Shortly after he was forced back to his native Bangladesh, his Japanese girlfriend joined him and they married.

But their happy life together didn’t last long. His wife, Yoshiko, fell ill and returned to Japan, where she was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer in April.

Because immigration law prohibits a deportee from returning to Japan for five years, Rahman had to remain in Bangladesh. He repeatedly begged the Japanese government for a visa so he could be with his wife, only to be told to wait four months for a decision.

“I just wanted a visa to see my wife,” Rahman told a recent news conference. “Because within five or six months she was going to die.”

After months of negotiating, Rahman finally got a 90-day special permit from the Japanese Embassy in Dhaka and arrived in Japan on Sept. 7.

His wife died a week later.

“These things should not happen in the future,” Rahman said, calling Japan’s immigration rules too rigid.

And the laws are set to get harsher.

The penalties for overstaying will stiffen with the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that takes effect Thursday.

The upper limit of fines will go up drastically. For visa violations or illegal entry, the fine can reach 3 million yen, up 10-fold.

Those who encourage employment of people without legitimate residential status can be fined up to 3 million yen. Foreigners who become engaged in activities other than what they are authorized to do under their visas can be fined up to 2 million yen, also up 10-fold.

“I doubt these people will actually be able to pay millions of yen,” said lawyer Satoshi Murata, who specializes in labor issues pertaining to foreigners in Japan.

“If they cannot pay, they will be detained and must provide labor” before they are deported, he said. “And to tell you the truth, I don’t think (the government) actually expects them to pay, either.”

Under the revised law, people who have overstayed their visa will be able to leave Japan voluntarily — instead of being deported — under certain conditions, including no past record of deportation. Such people can return to Japan after one year.

On the other hand, people deported for a second time for an immigration violation will be banned from entering the country for 10 years, instead of the current five. The entry ban on first-time deportees, like Rahman, will remain unchanged at five years.

Immigration authorities say the revised law is aimed at encouraging visa violators to turn themselves in.

“But I think that all it does is increase the number of stowaways, and overstayers will just find more ways to remain hidden,” Murata warned.

According to data collected by the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, there were 219,418 people in Japan overstaying their visa as of Jan. 1. The number peaked in 1993 with 298,646 and has since been steadily declining.

“True, the number has declined, but not fast enough,” said a senior official of the Immigration Bureau. “With the revised law, we are hoping for a further decline in the number.”

On its Web site, the Immigration Bureau cites the presence of overstayers and illegal entrants as among reasons for the Japanese people’s sense of anxiety over public safety.

The official denied a direct link between crimes by foreigners and overstayers and illegal entrants, but said that a recent ministerial meeting aimed at combating crime took up the topic of “overstayers being the hotbed of foreign crime.”

Lawyer Murata, however, said he doubts whether the revised law will resolve the various issues pertaining to foreigners in Japan.

“This law is basically (geared for allowing overstayers to either) return home on their own or being forced to leave, and does not solve the fundamental problem of Japan’s nonacceptance of foreign workers,” Murata said.

The underlying problem, he said, is Japan’s failure to accept foreign workers for manual labor even though certain sectors of the economy, including construction and agriculture, need them.