Sunday, February 01, 2004

Immigration Web site for tips draws discrimination concerns

Online `justice' protested
By TARO KARASAKI, The Asahi Shimbun
February 21, 2004

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International Japan lambasted the Justice Ministry on Friday for setting up a Web site function that allows the public to report on possible illegal foreign residents.

It said the system was a clear violation of human rights.

In a statement, the group expressed "strong concern,'' saying the Internet site could promote racial discrimination and cause stigma toward foreigners.

It called on the ministry to stop soliciting online tips.

The Web site function made its debut Monday and several people contacted the ministry about foreigners they found suspicious. The ministry resorted to the new tactic as part of a government pledge to halve the number illegally residing foreigners within five years.

There are an estimated 250,000 overstayers.

The site seeks detailed information on suspected overstayers, such as nationality, sex, profession, place of residence and where the person was last seen. The motive for reporting the information is also requested.

While the Web site asks for the informant's personal information-including their name, address and phone number-it is not mandatory.

Only the informant's age and prefecture of residence are required. The information is relayed to about 100 regional immigration bureaus nationwide.

The Tokyo-based National Network in Solidarity with Migrant Workers also sent a letter of protest to the Justice Ministry.

An official at the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau said the program is intended to help prompt reporting on possible illegal foreigners.

"The program is meant to increase the means by which people can report suspected cases,'' explained an Immigration Bureau official, adding that the bureau has been receiving tips from the public through mail or phone calls.

In 2002, regional bureaus received tips that led to the apprehension of about 75,000 foreigners, including those from anonymous sources. He said the Web site has already received about 200 tips.

"We have no intention of encouraging discrimination,'' the ministry official said, adding that tips will be thoroughly investigated, and information will not be leaked.

Groups providing medical and general counseling services for undocumented foreigners said that they fear the system could hinder humanitarian activities.

"It is like a reign of terror,'' said one official at the Catholic Tokyo International Center's Chiba branch. He added that some foreigners have already expressed fear about the online whistle-blowing system. The branch handles hundreds of cases each year, and was planning to start medical checkup services in March. But the official said the branch may have to reconsider this plan.