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Since the death of Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali at a detention center in Nagoya on March 6, Japan’s Immigration Services Agency has been the target of fierce criticism for the way it allowed the 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman to waste away in custody without proper medical attention, and as a result has had to reckon with its reputation for treating foreigners, especially nonwhite foreigners, as if they are potential criminals.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa has apologized and pledged to reform the system that figured in Wishma’s death while promising to punish those responsible. Moreover, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has since shelved its revision of the immigration law, which many critics say would make it easier to deport asylum-seekers.

For its part, the media has followed the case in a scandalized tone befitting a story in which a young woman dies painfully and unnecessarily while in the care of the state, but the coverage has focused on what happened to Wishma after she fell ill in January.

There has been only cursory mention of how she came to be detained in the first place. The gist of Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki’s continuing coverage of the story is that without understanding these circumstances, the real lesson that the authorities must take away from her death will be lost. Immigration detention centers may start paying closer attention to the health of their charges, but the larger problem of indefinite extrajudicial imprisonment of foreigners suspected of breaking the law remains.

As Mochizuki explains in a July 10 article, Wishma first came to Japan in June 2017 to learn Japanese. She met a fellow Sri Lankan at the language school she attended and at some point moved in with him and stopped attending classes. In August 2020, she showed up at a police box in Shizuoka Prefecture with only ¥1,350 in her possession, saying she had escaped from the man, who she claims had beaten her and taken her money. She asked for help.

In 2008, the Justice Ministry enacted guidelines for immigration centers on how to address foreign nationals who say they are victims of domestic violence. With the help of interpreters and nongovernment organizations, they are required to deal with the claims of such individuals forthrightly and help them get placed in shelters for victims if they conclude they are in danger. Most significantly, if they are not in possession of their passport due to the actions of their abuser, the official in charge must provide them with provisional permission to stay.

In Wishma’s case, the official should have reinstated her previous visa status. An immigration official testifying in the Diet about Wishma’s death acknowledged she had said she was a victim of domestic violence, but the facility did not process her as one. She was treated merely as an overstayer.

Initially, she wanted to return to Sri Lanka, but according to a Japanese supporter who visited her, in early December she changed her mind, perhaps because she had received a letter from the man she had lived with saying his family was seeking retribution against Wishma’s family back home. The supporter told Mochizuki that at this point the attitude of the staff also changed. They now pressured her to go back home. From that point, Wishma’s mental and physical state deteriorated.

In an Aug. 13 article, Mochizuki calls the agency’s final report about Wishma’s death, released in early August, a “second rape,” saying experts have demanded the agency rewrite the report to reflect how the Nagoya center ignored the guidelines. Mochizuki talks to lawyers and doctors who say the report shows that the staff had no idea how to handle a victim of domestic violence, and allowed her mental and physical state to worsen. The report focuses on Wishma’s unstable behavior prior to her death, with staff concluding that she was faking her illness in order to secure a provisional release.

Tokyo Broadcasting System, which was one of the first media outlets to report on the matter, aired a special report on the Aug. 21 installment of its Hodo Tokushu newsmagazine that focused on the pain and anger of Wishma’s sisters, who arrived in Japan in May and were still here when the final report was released. TBS spends an inordinate amount of time on the possible physiological reasons for her death, thus highlighting the agency’s conclusion that the problem lay in deficiencies of the medical system attached to the Nagoya detention center. TBS does not mention the domestic violence angle at all. Their report suggests that while Wishma’s death was unconscionable, her detention was justified.

Appearing on the TBS radio show “Session” on Aug. 11, Shoichi Ibusuki, the lawyer representing Wishma’s family, said that the final report tries to advance the notion that the detention center staff are hard-working and not abusive. Nevertheless, Ibusuki has heard that prosecutors in Nagoya are looking into bringing charges for Wishma’s death. As Mainichi Shimbun has pointed out, since 2007, 17 foreign nationals have died in immigration detention centers throughout Japan, including Wishma. The “Session” announcer remarks that an NHK report she saw claims the problem has gotten worse because the number of undocumented foreigners is increasing, so detention centers are crowded and under-managed. FNN Prime Online said something similar in that Wishma’s death is a blow to young civil servants who have to work for an immigration agency that doesn’t respect human rights, as if it were they who suffered and not the foreign nationals they work with.

Ibusuki said that by focusing exclusively on poor medical care, the media is missing the real story of Wishma’s death, which is that the Immigration Services Agency promotes an agenda whose purpose is to keep overstayers and failed asylum-seekers locked up at any cost until they leave Japan, regardless of their reasons for remaining. It’s an agenda reinforced by reporters when they don’t present the whole picture.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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