• Kyodo

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The death of a Sri Lankan woman detained at a central Japan immigration facility has been in the spotlight as the Diet debates a controversial bill to revise the immigration law, with critics fearing the revision will worsen conditions for asylum-seekers in Japan.

While ruling parties aim to pass the bill during the current Diet session through mid-June to resolve the long-term detention of foreign nationals facing deportation orders, opposition forces have called for its abolishment as the government has yet to figure out the circumstances surrounding the Sri Lankan’s death.

Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, 33, who had been detained since August last year at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Aichi Prefecture for overstaying her visa, died on March 6 after complaining of a stomach ache and other symptoms from mid-January.

In an interim report over the incident released on April 9, the Justice Ministry did not determine the cause of her death, while her supporters allege the tragedy was caused by the insufficient medical treatment provided by the immigration facility.

Opposition lawmakers have argued the bill currently being deliberated at the Diet is meant to expand the immigration authority’s power and discretion and that similar problems could happen again as long as the cause of the Sri Lankan woman’s death remains a mystery.

The legislation, which came amid growing criticism that indefinite detention is a human rights violation, allows asylum-seekers to be released and protects those who do not qualify for refugee status under the country’s strict standards. Japan only accepts around 1% of refugee applications.

However, supporters of refugees argue the bill does not do enough to protect asylum-seekers as it limits the number of times applications for refugee status can be made to two. While the deportation procedure can be halted while applying for refugee status, those who have applied for refugee status three times can be deported if the law is amended.

Many foreign nationals seeking refugee status in Japan, including ethnic minorities from such countries as Myanmar and Turkey, have been closely monitoring the Diet debates as possible revisions of the immigration law could affect their lives.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expressed “very serious concerns” over the bill in a statement dated April 9, regarding “the lifting of the suspensive effect of asylum applications on deportation,” while welcoming several parts of the bill that are expected to strengthen the protection of asylum-seekers and refugees.

Outside the Diet, foreign nationals and their supporters and celebrities in Japan have raised their voices against the legislation.

Author Kyoko Nakajima and TV personality LaSalle Ishii, among other celebrities, demanded the bill be abolished at a news conference on May 6. “The immigration authority has too much power, and the situation should be rectified. However, the bill heads in the opposite direction,” Nakajima said.

Wishma’s two sisters, who arrived in Japan on May 1 to hold her funeral, asked at the news conference why their family member died in the country. They took part in the event virtually as they were in quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The following day, actress Kyoko Koizumi’s office retweeted a post on the news conference with the Japanese hashtag meaning, “Protection for refugees, rather than deportation.”

In an attempt to stop the ruling parties from railroading the bill, the opposition lawmakers have demanded Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa release video footage of the Nagoya immigration facility to see how Wishma’s health condition deteriorated while in detention.

But Kamikawa has refused to release the footage, citing the need to protect Wishma’s dignity and for security reasons.

The Sri Lankan Embassy in Japan has said that it wants to know how and why Wishma died and who is to blame for her death.

After graduating from a university in her home country, Wishma came to Japan in June 2017 as a student with hopes of teaching English to children, according to the ministry’s interim report and her supporters.

As remittance from her family stopped, the Sri Lankan failed to pay her Japanese language school tuition and then lost her student status.

The immigration services bureau explained that Wishma was initially detained in a shared room but transferred to a single room after complaining about her poor health.

Developing esophagitis, Wishma saw a doctor and underwent an endoscopy at a hospital outside the immigration facility. On March 6, she became unresponsive and was rushed to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead later in the day.

Her supporters said Wishma used a wheelchair and sometimes vomited when they met her at the immigration center. When they last met her on March 3, they said her eyes were hollowed, there was foam around her mouth and her fingers were stiff.

They demanded that immigration authorities get her medical attention or grant her a provisional release, which she had been seeking but was denied in February.

At present, a provisional release is the only way for foreign detainees to be released from immigration centers. But all of the supporters’ requests were turned down, they said.

A psychiatrist who saw Wishma on March 4 had recommended she should be granted a provisional release, saying in a report to the Nagoya immigration center that her conditions could improve once she is released, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The sources also said the immigration authority suspected Wishma feigned illness to gain a provisional release and conveyed its view to the psychiatrist.

Long-term detention in Japan drew attention after a Nigerian man died in 2019 from a hunger strike protesting his prolonged stay at an immigration center in Nagasaki Prefecture.

To address the problem, the bill proposes a “supervisory measures” mechanism, which allows detainees to be released after paying a maximum deposit of ¥3 million. Supporters, designated by immigration authorities, then monitor their situation and report back.

But many supporters have voiced concerns about a burden they will bear for regularly reporting to the authorities. Those who go missing following their release could be penalized with up to one year in jail or a ¥200,000 fine.

The immigration authorities will examine individual cases to determine who may use the mechanism, with the expectation that foreign nationals who have applied for refugee status or those appealing a decision will fall into that category.

Tokyo has long been criticized for its low refugee recognition rate, which stood at 1.3% last year.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, there were around 82,000 overstayers in the country as of January, while some 10,000 accept deportation orders and repatriate every year.

About 3,000 remain in Japan by repeatedly applying for refugee status or appealing a rejection since deportations, under the current immigration law, are automatically stopped during the application process.

As a measure to strengthen the protection of asylum-seekers, the legislation suggests creating a mechanism for “quasi-refugees” who do not fulfill Japan’s strict asylum conditions but who are recognized as being unable to return to their home country due to civil war or other reasons.

The opposition lawmakers have proposed a third-party refugee recognition system, saying it is problematic for the immigration authorities that are tasked with detaining illegal stayers to determine whether asylum-seekers among them are qualified for refugee status or not.

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