Assembly in the Chamber of the House of Counsellors: Fighting Ethnic Discrimination and Human Rights
It has been close to one year since 6 March 2021, when Wishma Sandamali, a woman of Sri Lankan nationality passed away while detained at the Nagoya Immigration Center. We formed the “National Citizens’ Coalition against Ethnic Discrimination and Human Rights Violations by Immigration Services” on 11 December 2021 to consolidate the strength of organizations and individuals working on immigration issues across the country, and to build a nationwide movement to prevent harmful amendments to the Immigration Control Act and to reform the post-war immigration system in Japan.
In order to prevent cases such as the death of Ms. Wishma from ever occurring again we are demanding an investigation into the truth surrounding this incident and drastic reform to medical treatment in immigration facilities. We further call for abandoning the harmful amendment to the Immigration Control Act, which is slated to be proposed for a second time in 2022. Moreover, we call for abandoning the “single-minded deportation policy”, a substantial relaxation of the requirements for special residence status, and the granting of refugee status in accordance with international standards.
1. Fundamentally commit to revealing the truth surrounding Ms. Wishma’s death and prevent recurrences
The family members of Ms. Wishma Sandamali have vehemently requested that the Immigration Services Agency handover video of her treatment inside the detention facility. Those of her family who have seen the video have stated that foreign nationals in Japan, as well as the Japanese people and the international community at large, must know what occurred inside the facility. Moreover, the family of Ms. Wishma, including her sister, have requested the release of the video in hopes that doing so will raise awareness and prevent similar tragic cases from ever happening again. Despite the fact that the Immigration Services Agency is currently under investigation for murder by the Nagoya District Public Prosecutors Office, the Agency has not submitted material such as the video recordings of the incident involving Ms. Wishma Sandamali to the Diet, and has further tried to move past the incident under the guise that it is a “resolved incident”.
We will continue to demand that the truth be revealed and that those responsible are held accountable, starting with the release of the video footage. We strongly demand that the Immigration Services Agency does not pull the curtain down over this incident just because it disclosed video footage to select members of the Diet. Rather, the video must be handed over to the family of Ms. Wishma Sandamali and we call on the Immigration Services Agency to reveal exactly what happened at the immigration detention facility to Japanese society.
Furthermore, we are strongly opposed to the trivialization of the issue as being solely a “medical issue” which can be solved through the strengthening of the health system of the Immigration Services Agency. We take issue with the current distorted mischaracterization of the problem, which results in intervention in medical issues by the Agency, including in the relationships between doctors and patients, to the detriment of patients’ rights and the independence of doctors. What is needed is fundamental reform to ensure the independence of medical personnel.
2. Accountability for the Death of Ms. Wishma
Commissioner Sasaki held a press conference at the National Press Club on 17 July, 2019 following the death of a Nigerian national, who passed away during his detention at the Omura Immigration Detention Center on 24 June, 2019.
At a press conference, Commissioner Sasaki emphasized that “those who are detained could be immediately released from detention if they would just leave Japan”, stating that such detention is for the purpose of deportation. More concretely, the Commissioner noted that “while there is the view that detention between the issuance of a departure order have become increasingly prolonged, these detentions are to fulfill the legally mandated objectives of deportations by decisively maintaining control over said persons”, stating further that this is an issue that “the issue ought to be dealt with through facilitating deportations”.
These statements by Commissioner Sasaki are effectively signaled to immigration personnel to continue to execute their duties strictly in accordance with the three Notices that were circulated in 2015 and 2016, notwithstanding the death of the Nigerian man at Omura Immigration Center. The Immigration Services Agency never reflected on the conduct of its staff that led to the man’s death, taking the position that there were no issues with how the situation was dealt with at the time. In other words, the fact that the Nigerian national did not decide to leave Japan, because doing so would result in an end to his detention, was framed as the problem in this case. Conversely, the facilitation of detention for the purpose of deportation itself was not considered as a problem. In a document entitled “The Current Problem with the Immigration Control Act [Translated]” released by the Immigration Services Agency, they echoed the same point of view.
In September of 2015, the Immigration Services Agency withdrew their Notice which instructed immigration services to “avoid prolonged detention as much as possible” and called for the “flexible use of the provisional release system”. In its stead, a Notice was circulated which instructed each bureau to toughen the monitoring of persons granted provisional release and to tighten requirements for extending such release. The following year in April 2016, a Notice including instructions to “concretely and proactively work toward effectively and efficiently removing foreign nationals who cause insecurity by using a variety of new and modified methods of treatment and deportation to repress the occurrence deportation evaders” was disseminated. In September of the same year, another Notice was circulated, calling for the strict adherence to the instructions included in the Notices from 2015.
These Notices indicated a change in the Immigration Services Agency’s policy towards an attempt to facilitate deportations through prolonged detention. Indeed, the aforementioned April 2016 Notice from the Immigration Services Agency, stipulating instructions to “concretely and proactively work toward effectively and efficiently removing foreign nationals” has prompted immigration detention facilities to “repress the occurrence of deportation evaders” by ignoring the human rights, life and health of detainees and further contributed to the severity of treatment of such persons.
In other words, the Agency’s approach is to use maltreatment and prolonged detention to make detainees feel as though they can no longer cope with being in detention any longer. The strict adherence to this Immigration Services Agency’s policy was understood as the appropriate way to administer detention facilities by each bureau and detention center.
Following the Notice circulated in April 2016, prolonged detention increased throughout Japan, and the instances of forced deportation and repeated detention increased as well. As is common knowledge for aid workers who have been continuously visiting each internment facility, the use of human rights violations as a means to coerce deportation has intensified. A terrible result of this occurred in June 2019, at the Omura Immigration Center where a Nigerian national who was hunger-striking was left to die. As was mentioned above, Commissioner Sasaki stated that she would not withdraw the 2015 and 2016 Notices and would continue to enforce them, stating further that there were no issues with how the Omura Immigration Center handled the situation. Commissioner Sasaki’s response was akin to indicating to the immigration personnel that maltreatment for the purpose of coercing deportation should continue, even if it would result in the death of detainees. Thus, even after the case at the Omura Immigration Center, treatment to prioritize deporations was thoroughly implemented, resulting in the death of Ms. Wishma on 6 March, 2021. Ms. Wishma was not even given a single intravenous drip, nor was she granted provisional release on humanitarian grounds. She was instead subjected to preposterous harassment and abuse. This was for the purpose of coaxing her to say “I want to return to Sri-Lanka”, treatment which ultimately resulted in her passing. Ms. Wishma’s death was not the cause of inadequate staff training or the medical system at the treatment site itself, but rather the faithful implementation on the part of the Nagoya Detention Center of instructions in Notices from the Immigration Services Agency which called for such treatment to facilitate deporations.
Based on the above, the responsibility for the death of Ms. Wishma lies with the Immigration Services Agency itself. The Agency must not be allowed to downplay its own responsibility and reduce the incident to mere deficiencies in staff training and medical problems. We will hold the Immigration Services Agency accountable and fight to further reveal the truth relating to this case.
3. The backdrop to Ms. Wishma’s death: the “single-minded deportation policy”
Hereinabove, we have clarified who is responsible for Ms. Wishma’s death. To fully explain the backdrop and cause, however, we must first clarify specific terms. “Deportation evaders”, as coined by immigration services, are referred to persons who are to be deported based on the issuance of a deportation order. On 21 December, 2021, the Immigration Bureau announced that there are 3,103 so-called “deportation evaders”. The “single-minded deportation policy”, as we call it, refers to the intention of the Immigration Bureau to repatriate all or most of these 3000-plus people without granting residency status.
The problem is that many of these 3000-plus people who are subject to deportation orders are in fact refugees who have merely not been recognized as such. There are others who have no choice but to avoid deportation insofar as they are not given special permission to stay. Furthermore, the number of what the Immigration Services Agency calls 3000-plus “deportation evaders” is the total number accumulated since the year 2000 until 21 December, 2021; it does not mean that “deportation evaders” are increasing by 3,000 every year.
As far as we know, the longest period for those who have been subject to deportation but have been granted provisional release is 21 years; the number of such people who have been in the same situation for a period of 15 years or over 10 years is considerable. Moreover, there are 300 minors who were born in Japan but have been given provisional release status from birth because their parents were on provisional release.
Refugees who fear imprisonment or death if they return home, people whose families are about to be destroyed by deportation, children born and raised in Japan and their parents, those who have been in Japan for more than 20 or 30 years and have already lost the foundation of their lives in their home country, as well as undocumented foreign workers who have lived peacefully cannot comply with deportation and will naturally resist. It is not possible to promote deportations by imposing penalties on those who have no choice but to avoid deportations. The imposition of penalties will not change the circumstances that make them avoid deportation, such as being a refugee, or losing the future of one's children, or one's family and home. However, the proposed amendment to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, put forward by the Immigration Services Agency but was rejected in 2021, would have further strengthened the authority of the Agency to facilitate the deportation of all or most of these 3,000-plus people through the use of harsh penalties and regulations.
The proposed amendment is an extension of the “single-minded deportation policy” which, if enacted, will cause even stronger resistance, including suicides, from those who have no choice but to avoid deporation, and clearly doomed to contradict the objective of “facilitating deportations”.
It is important to underscore why the number of “deportation evaders” appears to be increasing. One reason is that the Japanese refugee recognition system is being operated in a way that is hardly consistent with the guidelines of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which constitute the international standards for recognizing refugee status. As a result, refugees who in fact must be protected under the International Refugee Convention are not recognized as such and are instead subject to deportation orders.
Moreover, rather than easing the criteria for granting special permission to stay in Japan, which is a measure under domestic law, the Immigration Services Agency has made it more difficult to meet the criteria for granting special permission to stay, including for those who must stay for serious humanitarian reasons. In doing so, the Agency itself has contributed to the increase in “deportation evaders” who have no choice but to remain in Japan. The Immigration Services Agency has been trying to reduce the number of “deportation evaders” under a single-minded policy without facing up to the problem it has brought upon itself. The 2015 and 2016 Notices and Instructions were put in place precisely to achieve this.
The worst results of these measures are numerous deaths and assaults that have occurred more frequently at each immigration detention center, including death of a Nigerian from starvation at the Ohmura Immigration Center, which was caused by neglect, and death of Ms. Wishma at the Nagoya Immigration Center.
The Immigration Services Agency intends to continue to detain and deport “deportation evaders" based on its "single-minded deportation policy" without sincere repentance of the serious consequences of such measures. It seems that the Agency will reintroduce an amendment this year to further strengthen its authority. We strongly object to such immigration administration and oppose the reintroduction of the amendment.
4. Towards addressing the problem by turning away from the single-minded deportation policy
The issue regarding “foreign nationals evading deportation” can be addressed by 1) granting refugee status in accordance with international standards and 2) substantially relaxing the requirements for special permission to stay in Japan, not by focusing on the deportation of all such foreign nationals. We believe that transitioning from a “single-minded deportation” approach, and instead implementing these measures will lead to a decrease in the number of so-called “evaders” and will also improve the issue of prolonged detention at immigration detention facilities.
Currently, there are approximately 300 minors on provisional release. If parents of such minors are included, the number is closer to 500-600 individuals. There are foreign nationals with Japanese spouses, spouses with permanent or long-term resident status (both with and without biological children), migrant workers who have stayed in Japan for a long time, as well as individuals who ought to benefit from protection on humanitarian grounds (for example, Ms. Wishma should have been under protection as a victim of domestic violence). Providing relief to such persons by granting them special permission to stay in Japan and, moreover, granting refugee status in accordance with international standards will contribute to substantially decreasing the number of so-called “foreign nationals evading deportation”.
The way forward for Japanese society is not to further create victims by implementing the single-minded approach. Rather, refugee status must be granted in accordance with international standards and the standards for granting special permission to stay in Japan should be substantially relaxed. Above all, the post-war immigration system which is rooted in a history of discrimination and repression must be reformed and Immigration Services must begin to treat foreign nationals, not as subjects of human rights violations, but as individuals who’s human rights are fully respected.