Richard Lloyd Parry: Football fans have their rights too, you know

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If you are white and Western, and travelling on the beaten track in a country as rich and welcoming as Japan, it is a rare experience to find yourself a victim of racism. But, to varying degrees, thousands of foreigners have had this experience in Japan over the last days.

If you are white and Western, and travelling on the beaten track in a country as rich and welcoming as Japan, it is a rare experience to find yourself a victim of racism. But, to varying degrees, thousands of foreigners have had this experience in Japan over the last days.

They are England football fans over here to see the World Cup, and their case is a unique and ironic example of the double standards and compromise that muddle our ideas of human rights.

In the past few days, Sven's Barmy Army has suffered treatment that would be an international scandal if inflicted any other comparably large group of people. While fans of every other nationality have passed smoothly through immigration at Tokyo's Narita Airport, the 8,000 England supporters have been singled out for scrutiny and suspicion. Thirty-one of them, having made the 6,000 mile journey, have been stopped and sent home – some with reason, but some for no better cause than the instincts of an immigration official.

If the Japanese authorities were doing the same kind of thing to black people or to members of left-wing political parties, rather than to supporters of a particular football team, it would be the stuff of Amnesty International reports and parliamentary questions. But, despite widespread reporting of the expulsions and detentions, no one has offered a murmur of dissent or concern. Far from objecting to this treatment of their citizens, the whole exercise is being carried out with the active co-operation of the British Government, the British police and the British Embassy.

This strange situation has come about, of course, because of a familiar problem: football hooliganism. Apart from the anxiety, pain and physical damage that it creates directly, hooliganism is unique in the damage it inflicts on a country's self-respect.

When a British paedophile is convicted in Thailand or the Philippines, we do not feel that our national integrity has been impugned. But if half a dozen England fans were to go berserk in the beer halls of Sapporo after this Friday's match against Argentina, all of us would feel a small, but personal, withering of our self-esteem.

The Japanese, more than most nations, are sensitive to this imagery. After the violence at the last World Cup in France and in Belgium during Euro 2000, the governments and police forces of Britain, Japan and the co-host, South Korea, developed a co-ordinated anti-hooligan strategy that has, on its own terms, been a tremendous success.

At its core is the Football Disorder Act 2000, a remarkable piece of legislation that allows the police to impound the passports of suspected hooligans five days before a tournament. The subject of a so-called "banning order" does not need to have been convicted of any criminal offence whatsoever; the magistrate has only to be shown that he has "caused or contributed" to "any violence or disorder".

"We can't do that with suspected terrorists, or suspected sex offenders," Detective Superintendent Bryan Drew of Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) said last year. So far, 1,031 banning orders have been issued, and none of those named are known to have turned up in South Korea or Japan. So that, one might have expected, should be that.

But no. Having kept away everyone who could be shown to have contributed to violence or disorder, anywhere, at any time, whether convicted or not, the British and Japanese police cast their net wider. Under Japanese immigration laws, for example, you can be refused entry if you have ever been convicted of a drugs offence. Most of the time airport immigration has no way of knowing about 30-year old convictions for marijuana possession – but during the World Cup, the NCIS has been obligingly passing on the criminal records of anyone whom the Japanese ask about.

It doesn't stop there. Japanese immigration officers have powers to turn away anyone on the ground that they do not believe the answers to their questions. Several British arrivals have been sent back not because they had a criminal record, but because they were travelling with someone who did.

On Friday night, one man in a Tokyo pub told me how he had arrived with four friends, three of whom had been turned away. One of them, he said, had a drugs conviction; the other two had none. "On our flight, they were 75 per cent Irish fans, but none of them got stopped," he said. "There were England fans borrowing scarves off the Irish and putting them round their necks when they went through immigration, and they weren't stopped either."

I have no sentimental illusions about my friend in the pub. He was drunk, he was fat. But I do not believe that there is any convincing evidence that he or his hapless companions were destined to cause violence in Japan. Assuming that the rest of the tournament goes as peacefully as it has so far, it will no doubt be described as a triumphant vindication of the hard-line exclusion policy.

But at what cost? The obligations of governments to preserve civil liberties are not forfeited because they want to keep themselves covered. And we cannot deny people the protection of our principles because they do not happen to be our cup of tea.