Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Japan Web site irks illegal aliens

SAYONARA Shoddy statistics along with unbalanced news reporting have led to a climate of scapegoating in which visa overstayers are increasingly seen as dangerous

AP , TOKYO

The Web site of Japan's Immigration Bureau has never been particularly foreigner-friendly: information about almost everything, from obtaining a visa to getting deported, is available only in Japanese.

But foreigners say the site's newest feature is downright nasty.

The bureau this year began soliciting tips over the Internet about suspected illegal aliens, enlisting the public in a high-profile deportation campaign ordered by authorities who say foreigners are to blame for a surge in crime in Japan.

"What's next -- paid informers?" asked Osvaldo Yamamoto, 30, a welder from Brazil. "Nobody wants to overstay their visa, but everybody wants a chance to work. Reporting on these people is a worse crime."

The online tip-off system, which started in February, is the latest in a series of measures announced by authorities in a campaign to halve the estimated 250,000 illegal aliens in Japan over the next five years.

Raids and roundups of illegals have multiplied, and visa requirements are becoming more strict. Employers and even language schools that sponsor foreigners are under heightened surveillance. About 50,000 foreigners were deported last year for visa violations.

Authorities say they're just keeping the streets safe, echoing police, conservative politicians and media reports alleging that foreigners are behind a surge in crime that's rocking the foundations of law and order.

"It's shaken people's belief they are living in the safest country in the world," said Hidenori Sakanaka, Tokyo's top immigration official. "We can't ignore this situation."

Authorities cite some scary-sounding statistics.

Arrests of foreigners jumped 23 percent last year, hitting a record high for a third straight year. Over half of those nabbed were illegal aliens, and almost two-thirds of crimes by foreigners involved groups of two or more.

The figures got a chilling -- and widely publicized -- illustration last year when several Chinese students were arrested for murdering a Japanese family, ransacking their house and throwing their handcuffed bodies into a bay.

Rights groups, however, see something different: a disturbing trend toward scapegoating in a country where foreigners make up less than 2 percent of the population of 127 million.

"The overwhelming majority of people who break the law in this country are Japanese, but nobody would dream of asking for tips about suspicious Japanese," said Shinichiro Nakashima, a member of Kumustaka, a support group for foreign workers in southern Japan.

Nakashima points to a fact rarely mentioned in the same breath as foreign crime: While the total number of crimes reported in Japan has risen to record highs for seven of the last eight years, the foreigners' share remains as tiny as their numbers.

Last year's headline-making figure of 40,615 offenses by foreigners amounted to 1.45 percent of the total. Most illegal aliens were arrested for a charge with no impact on public safety: overstaying their visas.

The Internet tip-off system has become a flash point for foreign anger. Groups ranging from Amnesty International to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan have blasted it for encouraging the public to look at all foreigners as potential criminals and called for a general amnesty for illegal aliens.

Overstayers talk about a sense of betrayal. Ismail, a 43-year-old electrician from Pakistan who spoke on condition that his full name not be used, was invited to Japan in 1992 as a trainee for an electronics company. He stayed on after his visa expired, moving from job to job. Now he fears deportation may be a mouse click away.

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