Nagoya – The family of a Sri Lankan woman who died after being detained for overstaying her student visa visited an immigration facility in Aichi Prefecture on Monday to hear from officials about the circumstances leading up to her death.
Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, 33, who was being held at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in the prefecture, died on March 6 after having complained of stomach pain and other symptoms from mid-January.
Her death, which activists blame on a failure to provide appropriate medical attention, has been cited as evidence of problems riddling Japan’s immigration and asylum system, particularly with regard to the indefinite detention of foreign nationals facing deportation.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with the facility’s head, the family said they felt as if the immigration agency was “running away from the truth.”
The officials offered condolences and said they viewed Wishma’s death as a serious issue but did not give “convincing answers,” the family’s lawyer, who accompanied them, said.
The family also visited the single-person cell where Wishma was held, describing it as “small and as if for an animal.”
Wishma was detained in August last year at the Nagoya facility for overstaying her visa. The Justice Ministry did not determine the cause of her death in an interim report on the incident released April 9.
Opposition parties have taken up Wishma’s case as the Diet debates a controversial bill to revise the immigration law, which activists believe will worsen conditions for asylum seekers. Several opposition lawmakers also made a separate visit to the facility on Monday.
Critics say the proposed legal revisions will violate the principle of nonrefoulement — not returning asylum-seekers to the country they have fled from. They have also slammed it for continuing to maintain detention for those facing deportation as a principle instead of being an exception or last resort, although provisional release can be granted in some circumstances at the discretion of immigration officials.
A university graduate and English teacher in her home country, Wishma entered Japan in June 2017 on a student visa planning to teach English to children in Japan, according to her family, the ministry’s interim reports and supporters.
Her mother has told Kyodo News that she was “worried about sending a girl alone overseas” but thought “it would be okay in a safe country like Japan.”
Wishma attended a Japanese-language school in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo but her attendance started flagging from early 2018, according to her teachers. As remittances from her family stopped, she also failed to pay her tuition. The school ultimately expelled her, notifying the immigration services agency in Tokyo that she had lost her student status.
Meanwhile, Wishma had moved in with a Sri Lankan man in Shizuoka Prefecture, according to the interim report and supporters, while finding work making bento meals.
In August 2020 she sought police protection after accusing the man of domestic violence, with only ¥1,350 ($12) to her name. Her illegal immigration status was discovered at this time, and she received a deportation order.
Wishma was terrified of her former partner, according to Yasunori Matsui who belongs to START, a support organization for foreign workers and refugees, and had been meeting with her since December 2020.
She received a threatening letter from him and feared he might kill her even if she returned home to Sri Lanka, Matsui added.
She initially thought that the immigration agency was a shelter and would protect her, Matsui said.
Wishma’s weight dropped by around 20 kilograms after half a year in detention. In late December, she applied for provisional release, but the request was denied in mid-February. She started complaining of stomachaches, nausea and loss of appetite from mid-January.
“I am not well at all. Please help me,” she wrote to Akemi Mano, 67, a local resident who had become involved in her case and who was planning to take her in if she were released. “I don’t want to bother you but I have no one else who cares about me,” Wishma wrote.
Supporters kept asking immigration authorities to get her medical attention or grant her provisional release, but their requests were denied.
At the end of February Wishma requested provisional release again, saying that she wanted to be treated at a hospital, but her application was again denied.
Her supporters said Wishma used a wheelchair and that when they last met her, on March 3 at the immigration center, there was foam around her mouth and her fingers were stiff. They said her eyes appeared hollow.
A psychiatrist who saw Wishma on March 4 recommended she should be granted provisional release, saying in a report to the Nagoya immigration center that her condition would improve if she were released, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The sources also said the immigration authority suspected Wishma was feigning illness to gain provisional release and had conveyed this view to the psychiatrist.
After developing esophagitis, the woman 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.
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