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System ‘failing asylum seekers’

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The recent death of a Myanmar detainee at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau underlines the inadequate medical treatment asylum seekers face nationwide from chronic staff shortages, experts say.

Anwar Hussin, 57, a member of the persecuted Rohingya ethnicity, suffered a brain hemorrhage Oct. 9 after being denied adequate medical assistance. He lost consciousness around noon after vomiting and suffering a seizure, according to People’s Forum on Burma, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization that supports Myanmar refugees.

Other detainees in his cell repeatedly asked immigration officers to get help, but their requests for an ambulance and a doctor, who was reportedly not summoned because he was having lunch, were ignored, the group said. About 50 minutes had passed by the time the doctor showed up, and Anwar Hussin was confirmed dead Oct. 14 after being hospitalized, they said.

“He was complaining to (immigration employees) of a headache all morning on the day he collapsed, but they gave him totally irrelevant medicine,” said Maung Hla Maung, his cousin and only relative in Japan. “Their response was slow, and it’s a real pity.”

Experts on immigration condemned the tragedy as the latest in a litany of medical lapses that have plagued Japan’s immigration facilities for years.

According to Yokohama-based doctor Junpei Yamamura, who regularly visits asylum seekers in detention, there were at least two recent cases in Tokyo and Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, where immigration staff failed to isolate detainees with tuberculosis because they didn’t run the proper medical tests.

The Provisional Release Association in Japan (PRAJ), a group of former immigration detainees, in May submitted a petition to improve conditions to the Ushiku detention center and denounced its medical system as “on the cusp of collapse.”

The petition mentioned a female detainee who had six teeth pulled in one surgery without her full consent, due partly to the language barrier. The operation was so painful she couldn’t eat well afterward.

In response to Anwar Hussin’s death, dozens of detainees in the Tokyo facility submitted a petition asking it to immediately rectify the “selfish decisions being made by no medical experts” and “inappropriate treatments by doctors.”

“Upon feeling sick, we’re supposed to tell our staff officers what’s wrong so they can examine us. But because they are not qualified doctors, they often end up giving us medicine that doesn’t work,” the letter, handwritten in Japanese, said, adding that procrastination prevents them from responding to even the most serious complaints, including heart pain.

“We’re just left unattended for a week or two,” the letter said.

Mitsuru Miyasako, a member of PRAJ, echoes their claims. Not until immigration staff acknowledge that a health crisis exists do detainees get to see real doctors, Miyasako said, but even then, they are only given a cursory look before receiving a diagnosis.

“Some doctors don’t even listen to the detainees, and try to wrap up their examination in a hurry just by giving them painkillers,” he said.

He also alleged that detention center doctors base their medical judgments on notes taken by immigration staff and fail to perform their own examinations.

Miyasako likewise decried the abysmal availability of professional interpreters versed in medical issues. Immigration centers, by and large, merely let fellow detainees with a relatively good command of Japanese act as go-betweens, he said.

The doctor shortage is rampant.

At the Tokyo immigration bureau, full-time doctors are available only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with a different one each day, said spokeswoman Sachiko Asai.

In response to criticism of this part-time schedule, Asai said the bureau ensures it will “call an ambulance should there be any emergency (when doctors are unavailable).”

But the problem apparently doesn’t end there. Aki Nakano of People’s Forum on Burma said doctors sometimes refuse to listen to detainees if their complaints are about medical issues they’re not familiar with.

Miyasako believes prompt action could have prevented Anwar Hussin’s death.

“What happened to him clearly suggests that the immigration staff is trivializing detainees’ ” health conditions, he said. “This is only the tip of the iceberg. Immigration immediately needs to stop neglecting its medical responsibility so there won’t be another Anwar Hussin.”Anwar Hussin fled to Japan to seek asylum in 2006 but was caught illegally entering the country. After nine months in detention, he was given provisional release for humanitarian reasons and moved to Nagoya, where he took a job. Those on provisional release aren’t permitted to work.

He visited the Tokyo center Oct. 9 to ask for an extension but was told he no longer qualified and was put into a detention cell, where he collapsed hours later.

Asai of the Tokyo immigration bureau refused to confirm any details of his death, including whether guards ignored detainees’ repeated requests for an ambulance and a doctor or how many minutes it took for either to arrive, citing “privacy reasons.”

“I believe there was nothing inappropriate with the way our staff responded to the situation,” Asai said.

Anwar Hussin’s wife and two children are reportedly considering suing the Japanese government.

  • IanPG

    Letting people die in detention cells is still wrong because these detainees are still humans. It’s not about immigration policy, it’s about treating people with basic dignity while they are being processed out.

    • Franz Pichler

      Agree fully! However, as far as we know procedure has been followed. We don’t know more, all we know is what the NGO says, and, I guess they’re of course biased. I would like to get a clear picture but we can’t. So the only fact we know is that this man died, actually as soon as his headache begun he was already either dead or would have ended in a coma because that’s how this kind of disease usually goes. I also think that working with asylum seekers is a terrible job because many tend to lie to get into the country, so after years in this job a certain cautioness is normal I guess. This man got rejected twice, so I think that the japanese government was very human and more than reasonable to let this person stay here so long. I’m not talking about morality, there are probably 4 billion people that would like to live in the developed world and are pushing to those countries, the debate of immigration and bogus asylum should not be left to right wing parties but brought out into the open and the moral of this is that most developed countries can no longer neither deliver for their own people nor for new immigrants. The line should have been drawn a long time ago but labour wanted cheap votes and business wanted cheap labour so that’s what brought us into this mess most if the developed world finds itself today. Japan is a great country and has all the right in her side to decide who to let in and who not. Japan did not mistreat this person and is in my opinion not guilty