Please Help Me’ Cry Haunts Land of the Rising Sun

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 12 2021
Focus Please Help Me’ Cry Haunts Land of the Rising Sun

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Migrant workers, asylum seekers, boat people, refugees fleeing their home country from poverty, oppression and war, have nothing to share but sorrows and the pathetic lives they spend in strange lands. But the death of Wishma Sandamali Rathnayake, who perished in a Japanese detention facility, is undeserved as Sri Lanka-Japan ties are deep rooted. The matter triggered a political upheaval in Japan whereas in Sri Lanka the news was met with silence.

A 33-year-old elementary school teacher, Wishma Rathnayake died in custody at the Nagoya Immigration Centre due to the lack of food and medical attention. Her death shocked the Japanese more than it did Sri Lankans including the Sri Lankan Embassy who were seemingly aware of her plight from the time she was detained. But why didn’t anyone come forward to her rescue? It is a question that needs to be analysed so that mistakes such as these don’t recur.

Ceylon Today wrote to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry requesting to clarify on Wishma’s death and is still awaiting a response.

The Sri Lankan mission in Japan has been questioned over the unwarranted death by Wishma’s two sisters who are currently in Tokyo, trying solve the puzzle because they claim that when a foreign citizen is detained, the immigration authority would first notify the Embassy of the news on the detainee.

In this case, the Sri Lankan mission says they have no idea about Wishma, contradicting the fact that Wishma in her diary has mentioned she was in touch with a person named Roshan Gamage from the Embassy. Gamage denies the claim. He told Wishma’s sisters; Poornima and Wyomi that the death has become a political tool in Japan. He also said that since Wishma sought asylum in Japan, the matter rested in the local authorities and the embassy had not details thereupon.

Ceylon Today reliably states that an officer named Kawauchi from Nagoya Immigration Centre had informed the Sri Lankan Embassy of Wishma’s detentio

The Japanese Government is known to be harsh on illegal immigrants with many deaths reported in detention centres while detainees waited for their asylum claims or refugee status to be approved.

Compared to wealthy countries, Japan is the lowest in approving asylum for foreigners. Japan never encourages asylum and usually less than one per cent are granted asylum and in 2020 only 47 persons sought asylum in Japan. It is also said that at least 24 detainees have died since 1997, according to the Japanese Lawyers Network for Refugees.  Based on the statistics of Japan's Immigration Services Agency, the estimated number of foreign nationals who overstayed was 82,892 as of 1 January 2020, where 1,112 were Sri Lankans. In 1 May 1993, when the highest number of foreign nationals overstaying their authorised period of stay was recorded, it was 298,646, out of which 3,763 were Sri Lankans.

Detention and caring for the detainee is the duty of the host Government, hence the death of a person under their custody is serious crime committed on an unarmed person.

“Wishma was treated with a lack of sensitivity to human rights and international norms in Japan by Japan’s immigration services and the Sri Lankan Mission,” Wyomi and Poornima, who are currently in Tokyo, said.   

“When we saw Wishma in her coffin, we could not recognise her as she looked extremely thin. Her limbs were similar to a haggard elderly in her 70s. We could easily guess how badly she has been treated.”

The sisters also said that the official at the Sri Lankan Embassy had told them that the Japanese authorities had issued an apology over Wishma’s death.

“We are here, but no one said sorry to us,” they said, implying that the Sri Lankan mission was lying to them.

A panel of independent Japanese lawyers and civil rights activists who invited the sisters said they have asked time till 7 July to investigate the tragic death.

Japan’s Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa and the Immigration Control Authority have come under fire over Wishma’s death and their response to the tragedy.

Death in vain

For merely overstaying her visa, Wishma was detained like a criminal in a single cell, cut off from the rest of the world and only allowed a representative from a non-governmental organisation called START to visit her.

When a foreigner is detained in Japan, it is immediately informed to the relevant embassy and it was the same in Wishma’s case. Her diary mentions: “I called the Embassy in the morning. I have the name of Satsui San and Miku San who came to meet me. I gave all the Embassy details to them”.

She died on 6 March and her body remained in the mortuary until her sisters travelled to Tokyo on 31 April.

In her diary dated August 2020 she wrote: “I want to go to Sri Lanka.” Her medical report mentions her cause of death as ‘unidentified’.

Despite the stressful life Wishma spent in Japan from the latter part of 2018, doing part-time jobs and later teaching in an elementary school (she went to Japan in 2017), she had been supporting her mother financially. She was a contributor to Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange but little was done in return.

The Embassy staff hinted to the two sisters that Wishma’s death has been unnecessarily politicised in Japan. “Had the Sri Lankan Embassy and the Japanese Immigration officials done their duties properly, why would this matter go to the Diet (Japanese Parliament)?” questioned Wishma’s sisters.

The Sri Lankan Embassy was informed… 

Ceylon Today has also obtained a few pages of her diary where she mentions an official named Roshan Gamage from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Tokyo to whom she had confided to get her an air ticket to return to Sri Lanka and that she needs help.

There was an outpouring of sadness and anger by the Japanese public who denounced the way migrant workers are been treated. Wishma’s death vividly showcased the other side of the Japan’s tight-fisted rule. There were protests and silent prayers held for Wishma while less attention was paid in Sri Lanka over her tragic death due to starvation and illness.

Lawmakers, especially from Japan’s opposition party, debated the new immigration law that came after Wishma’s death and rejected the new bill that would have a strong implication on migrant workers. Due to strong contentions from the civil societies and human rights activists in Japan, the bill was overturned.

After her death, many Japanese realised that their immigration system needed to be reformed. However, the Japanese Government submitted the bill to amend the immigration law to strengthen the authority of the Immigration Bureau and refused to disclose the details of her illness.   

The Japanese public have realised through Wishma's ordeal how Japan's Immigration Agency treated foreign people so inhumanly that the Government and the ruling coalition have abandoned plans to enact a bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law during the current regular Diet session.

The grieving family wants medical, post-mortem and blood reports, and CCTV footage to see what really had happened to Wishma.

But in the second year she could not manage her college fees, so she resorts to working a part-time job. But her fate came in the form of her fiancé who was also a Sri Lankan. Over the months, she was abused by her partner around the time her student visa was expiring. She had confided in many of her friends about her domestic abuse by her fiancé who also threatened of consequences if she goes back to Sri Lanka.

She moved from place to place with an expired visa amid constant threats from her fiancé. She decided to apply for asylum in Japan and contacted some human rights activists to support her.  According to her sisters, Wishma’s asylum application was rejected twice by Japanese Immigration.

Over threats by her fiancé, she finally surrendered to immigration authorities at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in 2020 August where she was detained.   According to Kyodo News, Wishma was terrified of her abusive partner. Yasunori Matsui, who works for START, a support organisation for foreign workers and refugees, had been meeting Wishma since December 2020. She initially thought that the immigration agency was a shelter and would protect her, Matsui said.

“Wishma called us last in the end of 2019 and told us not to worry that she will sort out her visa matter. That is all we heard and we know she will work it through. However, there was no news until a Policeman came to our house in Kadawatha saying that he was sent by the Foreign Ministry to inform about the death of our sister.”

Wishma’s mother was in shock and she wants to know how she died while under Japanese custody. The family believes that the best evidence on how Wishma died can only be found on CCTV footage from the detention facility.

Many Japanese Media outlets revealed that Justice Ministry officials are hesitant about releasing the CCTV footage to Wishma’s family and are buying time by citing security concerns because it might expose these facilities that are usually reserved for criminals, including terrorists. It may reveal how frequently officers check-in on detainees and what routes they take. They argue that such information must be kept confidential to prevent detainees from escaping.

The lawmakers have also stressed that with the ongoing inquiries into Wishma’s death, disclosing the CCTV footage would hamper their proceedings making it difficult for the panel members investigating the matter.

“Unless we see the video we cannot judge what had gone wrong and we need to tell our mother about it,” Wyomi told Ceylon Today. “How can we return without an answer to our mother? She is eagerly waiting and can we say ‘we don’t know what happen to your daughter’. I cannot say that,” she said.

Japanese fight for justice 

Most of the matters related to Wishma’s ordeal was revealed to the two sisters after they arrived in Tokyo. According to their sources, Wishma fell ill in mid-January this year. According to START, Wishma showed up with a bucket when the organisation’s staff visited her at the detention centre because she could not eat or walk and was frequently nauseas. She was also mentally stressed. According to Wyomi, Wishma had been vomiting blood.

The staff worried about her poor health and repeatedly asked the Bureau to let her be administered an IV (an intravenous drip). But her request has been not granted. Some of the medical documents were missing and the immigration officer did not know what an IV stands for.

Wishma who was avoiding immigration officials over her expired visa desperately showed up at the Police station in Shizuoka, to seek protection from her abusive partner. She also had told them she would want to leave for Sri Lana but had less than USD 20. Wishma has mentioned in her diary that she had asked the Embassy staff for an air ticket.

As she received a threatening letter from her fiancé that he would take revenge and would follow her even if she goes to Sri Lanka since she had reported him to the Police. This led her to contact START, to help her stay in Japan.  In late December 2020, she applied for provisional release, but the request was denied in mid-February. She started complaining of stomach aches, nausea and loss of appetite from mid-January.

"I am not well at all. Please help me," she wrote to Akemi Mano, 67, a local resident who had become involved in her case and who was planning to take her in if she were released. "I don't want to bother you but I have no one else who cares about me," Wishma wrote.

Supporters kept demanding that immigration authorities get her medical attention or grant her a provisional release, but their requests were denied. At the end of February 2021, Wishma requested provisional release again, saying that she wanted to be treated at a hospital, but her application was rejected again. In her last days, Wishma lost weight and was seen in a wheelchair on 3 March.

A psychiatrist who saw Wishma on 4 March, recommended she should be granted a provisional release, stating in a report to the Nagoya immigration centre that her condition would improve if she was released. But the immigration authority suspected that Wishma was feigning illness to gain provisional release and conveyed this view to the psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist had recommended to release Wishma, the interim report of the Agency removed that recommendation and said it did not include the recommendation in consideration of Wishma’s honour and privacy.

Interim report not finalised yet - Japanese Embassy, Colombo.

Ceylon Today posted several questions to the Japanese Embassy, Colombo over Wishma's death.

Embassy of Japan response: First and foremost, we would like to express our deepest condolences to the late Ms. Rathnayake and to her bereaved family. We take this case very gravely as Ms. Rathnayake passed away despite medical treatments by the doctors at the Immigration Services Bureau as well as at a private hospital, following the continuous complaints lodged by the late Ms. Rathnayake of her indisposition as well as various appeals made by her supporters.

On 9 April 2021, the Immigration Services Bureau in Japan published an interim report of the investigation regarding this case, which, in due course, will be finalised after incorporating the views provided by external experts.

We refrain from making further comments with regard to the rest of the inquiries, because the case is still under investigation.

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 12 2021

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