TOKYO, May 18, 2021, Kyodo. The government decided Tuesday to withdraw a bill revising rules on how to accommodate foreign nationals facing deportation, ruling coalition lawmakers said, amid criticism over the alleged improper treatment of a Sri Lankan woman who died while held at an immigration facility, The Japan Times reported.
The abrupt decision to give up on the passage of the bill during the current parliamentary session through mid-June came amid concerns that pushing through the amendment of the immigration law, which could worsen conditions for asylum seekers in Japan, could draw public backlash.
In seeking to block the proposed legislation, opposition parties demanded the government get to the bottom of the case involving Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, 33, who died on March 6 at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau after complaining of stomach pain and other symptoms from mid-January.
The Justice Ministry turned down an opposition request to release video footage showing Wishma as her condition deteriorated, partly for security reasons, which made it difficult for ruling and opposition parties to find common ground.
Railroading the bill at a time when activists, including online petitioners, were calling for it to be scrapped risked dealing a blow to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration, whose approval rating has been declining over its inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the ruling parties’ decision to scrap the bill, opposition lawmakers withdrew a censure motion against Hiroyuki Yoshiie, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Judicial Affairs Committee. The controversial bill had been deliberated at the panel.
Prior to the bill’s withdrawal, opposition forces had also threatened to submit a no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa unless the video footage of Wishma is released.
Critics said Wishma’s death is evidence of failures in Japan’s immigration and asylum system, particularly concerning the indefinite detention of those facing deportation.
Opposition parties and activists argued the proposed revision of the immigration law would violate the principle of non-refoulement — or not returning asylum seekers to the country they have fled from — because it only allows the deportation procedure to be halted twice while applying for refugee status.
They also criticized it for maintaining detention for those facing deportation as a principle instead of being an exception or last resort.
Under the bill, the government planned to craft some mechanisms to allow foreign nationals facing deportation and detained at immigration facilities to be released, and to protect those who do not qualify for refugee status under the country’s strict standards.
Japan only accepts around 1% of refugee applications it receives.
Later Tuesday, members of Wishma’s family was set to meet Kamikawa and Shoko Sasaki, commissioner of the Immigration Services Agency, in Tokyo to discuss her death. The justice minister told a press conference earlier in the day that she will “offer condolences and express sympathy.”
Wishma’s younger sisters — Wayomi and Poornima — arrived in Japan earlier this month and held a funeral in Nagoya on Sunday.
Wataru Takahashi, a lawyer representing the bereaved family, hailed the role protests over the tragedy and media coverage played in securing the withdrawal of the bill.
“However, as the issue of long-term detention (of foreign nationals) by the immigration authorities remains unchanged, true reforms will be necessary,” he said.
On Monday, the sisters visited the Nagoya immigration facility in Aichi Prefecture where Wishma was held to hear in person from officials about their family member’s death but were left unconvinced by their explanation, they said.
In an interim report over the incident released on April 9, the Justice Ministry did not determine the cause of death, while her supporters allege the tragedy was caused by the insufficient medical treatment provided by the immigration facility.
Wishma entered Japan in June 2017 on a student visa in hope of teaching English to children in Japan but she lost her student status when she was unable to pay her tuition, among other reasons, according to her family and supporters.
In August 2020, she sought police protection after fleeing a situation in which she suffered domestic violence at the hands of a fellow Sri Lankan she lived with. Her immigration status was discovered at the time, and she was handed a deportation order.