Japan’s immigration detention system has recently come under renewed scrutiny. In particular, the 6 March death of a 33 year old Sri Lankan woman–Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali–who died in the Nagoya Regional Immigration Bureau Detention House following months of health complaints, sparked a wave of criticism and drew international attention.
Sandamali had been detained since August 2020, when she visited a police station seeking help with domestic violence but upon which she was arrested for overstaying her visa. Since December 2020, she had repeatedly complained of stomach pains and other symptoms including fever and trouble eating. Press outlets report that despite clear signs of illness and repeated requests for release and hospital treatment, officials at the centre refused to release her, arguing that she was feigning illness in order to secure release. Some have pointed in anger to the fact that while the centre had refused to release a clearly unwell Sandamali, Japan had released hundreds of healthy detainees during the pandemic to alleviate overcrowding and prevent major outbreaks in facilities.
According to her two sisters, who travelled to Japan for her funeral, Sandamali had been held in a “tiny” and depressing room, and at a press conference they expressed their anger at the lack of answers they had received from immigration officials regarding the circumstances surrounding her death. Authorities have also refused to release video footage of Sandamali in the detention centre prior to her death, prompting many to challenge the country’s opaque detention practices. Since her death, protestors have gathered on an almost daily basis outside Parliament to criticise the government’s detention practices.
Japan’s immigration policies have long been criticised by observers as unduly harsh and strict. Few asylum seekers are successful in their applications: In 2019, authorities granted asylum to less than one percent of applicants. Large numbers of foreigners, including asylum seekers, are instead detained indefinitely, despite criticisms from UN rights bodies such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In 2019, a Nigerian man died in detention following a hunger strike in response to his three-year long confinement. His death was one of 17 that have been reported inside detention facilities since 2007. Of these, 10 deaths were due to sickness, five were suicides, and the cause of the remaining two is unknown.
Shortly after Sandamali’s death, Japanese authorities announced that they were abandoning plans to overhaul the country’s immigration law. The previously planned amendments would have made the country’s immigration system even stricter, and had been heavily criticised by rights observers. Amongst the now withdrawn proposals was a plan to remove an existing provision that suspends deportation orders when an asylum seeker appeals a decision or reapplies for protection, and plans to move rejected asylum seekers who refuse to comply with deportation orders into the criminal system. The amendments, however, did not include changes to the country’s currently unlimited detention time.
As the GDP has previously reported on this platform, significant numbers of immigration detainees were released during the pandemic. Reports suggest that those released were required to meet certain conditions, such as regularly reporting to immigration facilities. However, according to the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, released detainees have been given no financial support and are banned from working legally–something that the group argues is an effort by Japanese authorities to encourage non-nationals to leave voluntarily. Many have instead been supported by local civil society organisations. Similar release arrangements do not appear to have been applied to the country’s prisons.
Despite efforts to decongest detention facilities, cases of COVID-19 have nevertheless been recorded. In February 2021, five staff and 39 detainees tested positive at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau Detention House. All detainees were subsequently tested, and infected detainees were quarantined. Some observers blamed the fact that rooms in facilities such as these are “small, closed spaces.” Meanwhile, as the virus continues to fluctuate, Japan has extended its state of emergency and most foreign nationals continue to be denied access to the country. According to UNHCR, exceptions have however been made for asylum seekers. To-date, the GDP has been unable to ascertain whether immigration detainees will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
- J. Ryall, “Japan Drops Plans to Fast-Track Refugee Deportations After Sri Lankan’s Death in Detention,” This Week in Asia, 18 May 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3133948/japan-drops-plans-fast-track-refugee-deportations-after-sri
- Reuters, “Japan Withdraws Immigration Bill After Death of Sri Lankan Sparks Criticism,” 18 May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-withdraws-immigration-bill-after-death-sri-lankan-sparks-criticism-2021-05-18/
- UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), “Concluding Observations on the Combined Tenth and Eleventh Periodic Reports of Japan,” CERD/C/JPN/CO/10-11, 30 August 2018. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/JPN/CERD_C_JPN_CO_10-11_32238_E.pdf
- B. Dooley and H. Ueno, “Japan is Shaken After a Detainee, Wasting Away, Dies Alone in a Cell,” New York Times, 18 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/18/world/asia/japan-refugee-wishma-rathnayake.html
- The Mainichi, “Ex-Japan Immigration Facility Worker Reveals How Staff Looked Down on Foreign Detainees,” 19 May 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210518/p2a/00m/0na/030000c
- A. Miyazaki, “Nigerian Man Dies After Hunger Strike in Japan Detention Centre,” Reuters, 28 June 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-immigration-hunger-strike/nigerian-man-dies-after-hunger-strike-in-japan-detention-center-idUSKCN1TT0R4
- J. Chase-Lubitz, “Japan Mulls Closing Another Door to Refugees,” Foreign Policy, 23 March 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/23/japan-immigration-law-change-asylum-seekers-refugees/
- Amnesty International, “Japan 2020,” https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/japan/report-japan/
- The Asahi Shimbun, “Illegal Foreigners Released Due to Complications From Pandemic,” 28 September 2020, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13732676
- The Telegraph, “Japan Finds New Covid Strain, While Immigration Centre Reports Infections,” 19 February 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/02/19/japan-finds-new-covid-19-strain-immigration-centre-reports-infections/
- UNHCR, “COVID-19 Platform: Temporary Measures and Impact on Protection,” accessed 21 May 2021, https://im.unhcr.org/covid19_platform/