Encourage mentality change to prevent deaths of foreign detainees

The lives and human rights of foreign nationals detained at immigration facilities must not be disregarded. The government should work to raise awareness among immigration officials and prevent a recurrence of a similar incident.

The Immigration Services Agency of Japan has released a final report on its investigation into the death of a Sri Lankan woman under detention at an immigration facility in Nagoya in which it states there were problems with the facility’s handling of the matter, among other issues.

The woman came to Japan in 2017 to study Japanese, but she stopped attending Japanese language school and was detained in August last year for overstaying her visa. She had continuously complained of poor health since January this year and died of illness on a weekend in March.

The final report stated that senior officials of the immigration facility and others “lacked the awareness to actively identify and respond to problems with the physical condition of detainees.” According to the report, some officials made mocking remarks after seeing the woman regurgitate her drink due to her poor health.

Immigration facilities that restrict the freedom of detainees have a responsibility to protect their lives and health. However, the facility apparently lacked such awareness.

There were no doctors available on holidays at the facility, and there also was no system to consult an outside doctor if detainees’ conditions worsened. The woman asked for an intravenous drip infusion and treatment at an outside medical institution. However, the request was not conveyed to executives of the facility, contrary to the facility’s internal rules, and as a result, it did not lead to an organized response.

The insufficient medical care system on holidays was also considered problematic in a case in which a Cameroonian man died at another immigration facility, but the lessons learned from that case were not utilized in the latest incident. The agency, which failed to take necessary measures, bears a heavy responsibility.

The agency reprimanded or gave strict warnings to four officials of the facility, including senior officials, and Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa apologized for the matter. Japan’s immigration system has long been criticized by foreign countries for its low refugee acceptance rate. Behind the unusual disciplinary action on immigration officials this time may be a sense of urgency that such action is indispensable to regaining trust.

Long-term detention at immigration facilities is also a challenge. Many foreign detainees have been held for more than six months and some have been detained for more than three years. Some detainees have died in detention and there have been hunger strikes protesting prolonged detention.

A bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, which the government sought to pass in the previous Diet session, was aimed at eliminating long-term detention.

Overstaying foreigners are detained at immigration facilities in principle until they are deported to their home countries. The revision bill included a system to change this rule to allow them to live under the supervision of their relatives and others until they are deported.

There was no vote on the revision bill because of resistance from opposition parties that sought to get to the bottom of the issue. To improve the living conditions of detainees, ruling and opposition parties need to promptly expedite discussions for revising the law.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 13, 2021.