The interior of the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, is seen during a media tour organized by the Justice Ministry. (Kimihiko Sato)

USHIKU, Ibaraki Prefecture--The detainees stopped doing push-ups and sit-ups in their “common area” when they noticed visitors on the other side of a window. After they moved toward the glass, one made an impassioned plea.

“We are refugees,” he said. “Some of us have been here for two or three years. Please look inside because it’s so awful here. Help us.”

They were being detained at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, a facility here that has drawn public attention to the treatment of those seeking refugee status.

An Indian man in his 30s died in April after being discovered in a shower room at the center with a towel tied around his neck, center officials said.

About 100 detainees went on a hunger strike for about a week after the Indian man’s suicide, demanding an end to their long-term detentions as they await processing of their refugee-status applications.

In May, a Japanese-Brazilian, a Cameroonian and a Kurd with Turkish nationality separately attempted to kill themselves at the center, according to a group supporting the asylum-seekers there. Their injuries were not considered life-threatening.

The Justice Ministry allowed media representatives to tour the center in late May.

The men-only facility holds 337 people from 41 countries, about 70 percent of whom have applied for refugee status. Others are awaiting deportation over illegal stays and other reasons, ministry officials said.

By nationality, Iranians account for the largest number at the center, at more than 40, followed by Sri Lankans.

The detainees spend most of their time in their rooms, each with a capacity of one to five people. They can leave their rooms for a total of about six hours in the morning and in the afternoon.

They can use the common space on the same floor to play table tennis or make phone calls. The common space and other areas are under constant camera surveillance.

They are also allowed to engage in physical exercise outdoors, but for only 40 minutes a day.

Ministry officials said the detention period at the center was typically around two to three months seven or eight years ago, but that period has increased to one or two years.

The longest detention period for an individual at the center was four years and 11 months.

“Detention at an immigration facility induces attempted suicides because the detainees are put in a state where they have no idea when they will be allowed to leave,” said Koichi Kodama, a lawyer well-versed in the issue of human rights for non-Japanese.

“Japan should create a system like Britain’s, in which a court decides within several days if a subject should be detained and gives a reason for that decision.”

Ministry officials said 1,351 individuals were detained at immigration facilities across Japan as of the end of last year.

Of them, 576 had been detained for at least half a year, double the figure at the end of 2013.

One individual had been detained for five years and seven months as of the end of April, the officials added.

Hiroshi Kimizuka, director of the Justice Ministry’s Enforcement Division, gave his theory on why detention periods are getting longer.

“Deportation is suspended during refugee recognition procedures,” he said. “Perhaps more people caught for working illegally have been applying for refugee status to avoid being deported.”