TIU Global Dialogue Series: Why Did She Die? Immigration Detention Practices in Japan

By Evan Ronny Hotasi and Dilnaz Yeleussizova

As a part of the annual TIU Global Dialogue Series, on June 23, Tokyo International University had the honour to welcome Professor Yukari Ando, a distinguished scholar from the University of Osaka specializing in International Human Rights, to lead the discussion regarding the unfortunate case of Miss Sandamali, who lost her life on March 6, 2021, while in the custody of the Nagoya Immigration Bureau. Moderated by an expert in the realm of Human Rights Professor Christopher Lamont, an accomplished scholar with a distinguished background in International Relations, and in the presence of Professor Akitoshi Miyashita, the esteemed Dean of the International Relations Faculty of TIU, this webinar delved deep into controversies surrounding the Japan’s immigration agency and detention facilities.

Miss Wishma Sandamali was detained in August 2020 due to overstaying her visa, resulting in her detention at the immigration center until the year 2022. Throughout her stay, she faced a deterioration of her health, and sought for medical attention, but was denied it, which led to her soon unjust death. The sudden passing of Miss Wishma Sandamali can be linked to a tangle of circumstances that span legal and sociopolitical spheres. Specifically, there being a lack of a mechanism to set a specified length of residence for refugees who have been subjected to immigration detention. This aspect of Japanese law further evolves into another ludicrous intricacy involving the degree of power granted to the detainee’s guardian and technicalities of the definition of the refugee.

Watch the recording of the seminar here

Japan bases its definition of refugees on the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.  In accordance with this definition, a refugee is someone who may be subject to persecution because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” However, since the definition does not involve the condition of “running from the country of origin due to the fear of prosecution”, there is only a rate of 1.92% of acceptance for the title of refugee from the Japanese government as of now. By doing so, Japanese government is using a breach in a law interpretation, which allows them to be more critical on who they can classify as a refugee. As a result, other foreign nationals who are waiting to be judged are being held in poor conditions that violate their human rights. To put this into perspective, Professor Yukari Ando provided the statistics of only 1 Turkish Kurd being accepted as a refugee, despite having more than 200 Turkish Kurds applying applying for refugee status, placing Japan below other G7 countries in terms of refugee acceptance.

Foreign nationals who are seeking asylum in Japan,  fall under the definition of karihomensha (仮方面者), which refers to foreigners who are issued detention orders, but are free to leave the detention facility for a short period of time. The story of Miss Wishma Sandamali provides as a powerful instance of the difficulties experienced by karihomensha, illuminating the structural problems with Japan’s treatment of asylum seekers.  In Chapter II Section 6 Article 62 Clause 3 of the Act on Penal Detention Facilities and the Treatment of Inmates and Detainees (Act No. 50 of 2005), it is stated that the detainee’s right to work is disregarded, which means that they are denied the chance to either collect money for their deportation if their refugee application is denied, or the chance to have money to live if they are accepted as a refugee. In addition, it is stated that the detainee will be then arrested to the pursuant to the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which implies that they will be given a guardian and a simple medical treatment.

Protests on long detention were triggered following the death of Wishma Shandamali

A guardian is provided to each refugee in order to help them feel less alienated. As seen through the video showcasing Miss Shandamali’s case, she expressed her concerns about her health needs to her guardian. Every day, she would come up to her guardian and ask for assistance regarding her health condition, yet her guardian is always declining her requests under the excuse of not having enough authority over the situation. Since Miss Shandamli is not a legal resident of Japan, she has limited access to the Japanese healthcare system, and sending her to a hospital outside of the detention center would have been difficult. Thus, the guardian did not entertain her request and allowed her health state to get worse until she passed away in her sleep. With these policies in place, the guardian’s purpose is ultimately defeated, due to the fact that they have no control over the detainee at crucial times. If the guardian had more authority over the livelihoods of their detainees, they would be able to help the detainees in life-threatening situations, which could reduce the probability of death for cases such as Miss Shandamali’s.

In conclusion, the webinar presented by Professor Yukari Ando explained the many trials and adversities that foreign nationals without a valid visa have to face when dealing with immigration policies in Japan. Miss Wishma Sandamali’s case, along with the other akin cases presented throughout the webinar, exposed the complex systemic issues that should be brought to attention. It is important that the Japanese government be more proactive to address these issues surrounding refugee status determination and immigration detention. Reforming the existing policies on these issues can create a more fair system to accommodate to the needs of foreign individuals within the country, and uphold international standards of human rights.

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