Deported from Japan: until death do us part

February will see the final judgment in the case of Abubakar Awudu Suraj, a Ghanian national who died whilst being deported from Japan. An interview with his widow highlights States’ powers to regulate migrants' intimate relationships with their citizens.

Jacqueline Andall
13 January 2014

On 22nd March 2010, Abubakar Awudu Suraj, a Ghanaian national, died whilst being deported from Japan. By coincidence, on the following day, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants began his official nine-day visit to Japan. In his final report he raised concerns that Suraj’s death might reflect a pattern of violence inherent in Japanese deportation procedures.

I interviewed Suraj’s widow in Tokyo in September 2011 and attended court hearings about his death at Tokyo District Court in 2011 and 2012.

Suraj’s death occurred in a country which rarely features in international discussions of migration control. Yet it testifies powerfully to the role immigration enforcement has as a normative test ground for personal and private affairs. Though the case is ongoing, a final judgement is expected next month.

 Asian Peoples Friendship Society

Protest calling for justice for Suraj and his widow. Photo: Asian Peoples Friendship Society

Labour migration to Japan: an absence of regularisation

While the death of Suraj could be regarded as exceptional, his experience as an irregular labour migrant to Japan was not atypical. Suraj numbered amongst the pioneering group of Ghanaian nationals who migrated to the country in the 1980s, most of whom entered the country on tourist visas at a time when Japan was implementing its internationalisation strategy. During this decade, labour shortages in the manufacturing sector had become acute and it was in this sector that Ghanaian migrants were easily able to find (irregular) employment. Suraj worked in a variety of jobs, including in a metal plating factory, in recycling and in the clothing sector. He was also an amateur artist, painting for a magazine and illustrating commercial posters and CD jackets.   

With openness to labour migration limited to the highly skilled, the low-skilled sector in Japan is envisaged publically as an arena of domestic self-sufficiency. Yet it remains the case that labour shortages in low-skilled sectors are filled by students, ethnic returnees, trainees and interns in addition to those who over-stay their visas. 

Unlike many other countries of migration, Japan has never implemented an amnesty or regularization for its undocumented migrants and state officials view migrants who breach immigration rules by over-staying or using fake documents as ‘unethical’. The one provision that functions as a form of state regularization for irregular migrants - the special permission to stay permit - is a discretionary tool that lacks transparency. It thus fails to respond to many of the challenges posed by Japan’s recent history of migration.

Marriage as a route to permanence?

 In the absence of formal pathways to regularisation of status, marriage to a Japanese national is the primary means through which irregular migrants can legalise their status in Japan.

Suraj entered Japan on a tourist visa in May 1988, aged 23. He met his partner in September of the same year and they began living together in January 1989. Throughout his time in Japan, though cohabiting, he and his partner never married. According to his widow: ‘Neither of us were the type to care about institutionalised systems such as marriage, but if we were to have children then we would have married. We thought about having children and talked about marriage but then I had an accident and I had to recover and we never got around to doing it’.

In September 2006, 18 years after his arrival in Japan, Suraj was arrested for over-staying his visa. His ‘dishonesty’ at the point of his arrest did not help his situation. His widow said: ‘he gave false identification to the police and he also told the police that he was married, giving them the impression that he was not sincere’.

Suraj was subsequently detained in an immigration detention centre for ten months.

The couple registered their marriage on November 8th 2006, the day after he was issued with a deportation order. As might be expected, the registration of a marriage subsequent to immigration detention was not viewed favourably by the authorities. His widow remained baffled that, after two decades together, their relationship could be characterized as ‘fake’: ‘If Suraj really wanted to have a visa, he could have picked up any Japanese girl and he could have left me at any time, but he never did.… I know his Ghanaian friends told him “if she doesn’t want to get married, why don’t you find someone else?”’

There is little doubt that Suraj’s position would likely have been different had he and his partner married earlier.

Suraj fought against the immigration ruling at the Tokyo District Court and subsequently at the Tokyo High Court. In April 2007, he submitted a request to the District Court to repeal his deportation order and to issue him with a special permission to stay permit. He was initially successful as, in 2008, the District Court ruled that ‘although Suraj and his wife did not have a registered marriage, their relationship - including its aspects of financial mutual support - was wholly equivalent in substance to that of any socially recognized married couple’. The immigration authorities then appealed against the decision.

In March 2009, the High Court ruled that Suraj was not eligible for the special permission to stay permit. They gave the following reasons for upholding the deportation order: ‘based on the ruling released by the District Court, Mr Suraj and [his wife] did not have children. [His wife] is financially independent and it is recognised that [she] does not necessarily need his help.’

The absence of a blood line to Japan through children is noted, as is the attachment to the organisation of family life along traditional gender lines. As Suraj was not the principal breadwinner for a ‘wife and children’ and, moreover, his wife was of independent financial means, he was considered to be physically redundant. The emotional needs of the couple were dismissed and Suraj could legitimately be ‘returned’ to his original family in Ghana.

The ruling noted that Suraj had close family still residing in Ghana and thus would not have any particular difficulties living there. This view underplayed the social, economic and psychological significance of deportation to someone who had by then lived in Japan for a total of twenty-one years, including for almost the totality of his adult years. It demonstrates the extent to which immigration enforcement is a test-ground for normative (and often gendered) principles which shape the lives of citizens and non-citizens alike, as has been argued elsewhere on openDemocracy 50.50.

Detention and deportation

Two months after he lost his case at the High Court, Suraj was re-detained whilst reporting to the immigration authorities under the terms of his provisional release. However, he was determined not to be deported back to Ghana. He had left the deprived area of Nima in the capital Accra in the 1980s when the Ghanaian situation was dire and conditions in Nima were tough. Although the political and economic situation in Ghana has improved considerably, he would have had his own memory and knowledge about life and opportunities in the country. 

A first attempt was made to deport Suraj on February 2nd 2010. However, the attempt was aborted in Thailand when Suraj resisted his deportation by clinging on to a pole at the airport and causing a commotion. With airline staff refusing to allow him to board, immigration officials were forced to return with him to Japan.

On February 26th 2010, Suraj made a request for a further retrial but this was rejected on March 19th. Three days later, on March 22nd, his wife was not informed that her husband was to be deported. Handcuffed and gagged, he was carried on to a plane. According to his widow: ‘At some point he was quite motionless… The officers said he was pretending to be sick. The flight attendants saw that he was motionless and they refused to let him stay on board and told the officers to take him off the plane’. Suraj was removed from the plane and taken to the airport hospital where he was confirmed dead.

The personal and the precarious

As we await the outcome of the case in February this year, the experience of Suraj and his widow raises questions that resonate with states across the globe where immigration control is increasingly permeating the intimate lives of both citizens and migrants.

The life and manner of Suraj’s death demonstrate how changes in immigration enforcement practices can fundamentally transform a precarious residence status. While a blind eye was turned to irregular Ghanaian migrants in the 1980s, in subsequent decades, the state sought to drastically reduce the number of over-stayers. Suraj’s death highlights the risks of remaining as a long-term over-stayer in a country that offers only a limited and discretionary route to legal residency and employment. Despite being in a long-term committed relationship with a Japanese citizen, it would appear that his dishonesty in his dealings with the immigration authorities, not only in terms of over-staying but in lying when initially apprehended, raised question marks about his ethical integrity, leading ultimately to his deportation and untimely death. In Japan it would appear that it counts if you have a blood line, if you provide economic support for a Japanese citizen and crucially, if you are in a legally recognized (and morally sanctioned) marital unit. 

Suraj’s case demonstrates how states assess the personal integrity of foreign nationals as well as their intimate relationships with citizens. In this case, the Japanese state chose not to exercise discretion in favour of Suraj, a man who, in the words of his widow, ‘never committed any crime and he was becoming more like the Japanese’. 


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