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Was Cameroonian woman's death hours before she received Japan residency avoidable? (Pt. 1)

This provided photo shows the late Relindis Mai Ekei. According to her supporters, she was always smiling. (Photo courtesy of Mai's supporters)

TOKYO -- A 42-year-old Cameroonian woman who was applying for refugee status in Japan passed away at a Tokyo hospital in the early morning of Jan. 23. She was detained at immigration facilities twice and temporarily released, but had nowhere to live and was for a time homeless. Just three hours after her death, she received a document allowing her to stay in Japan. Couldn't her life have been saved?

    Relindis Mai Ekei was from northwestern Cameroon, in central Africa. In July 2004, she dropped out of a local university and got help from relatives to come to Japan. After her residence status expired, she carried on making ends meet by working at a convenience store, a factory and elsewhere.

    But in March 2011, she was found to have overstayed, and was detained at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, from which she was temporarily released on probation. In July 2016 she was detained again at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in the capital's Minato Ward, but in February 2018, when her health deteriorated, she was given temporary release for a second time.

    Mai left Cameroon to escape her violent fiance and female genital mutilation, but while she was in Japan the political and social situation in her hometown deteriorated. With no prospect of returning, she applied repeatedly for refugee status.

    Even though she was released from detention, she could not legally work. She wasn't eligible for health insurance either, making her burden when she got sick even greater. As a result, Mai got help from many supporters.

    The first person who came into contact with her was Makito Miyajima, 48, a pastor at Haramachida Church in Machida, Tokyo. Miyajima had served at a church in Ushiku in 2012, and he continues to meet foreigners at the immigration center there as part of volunteer work. It was there that he got to know Mai.

    He recalled, "She often complained of headaches and sleeplessness during her detention. She also said, 'I can't go back to Cameroon.'"

    Miyajima used to support homeless people at a church in Naka Ward in the east Japan city of Yokohama, and became involved with supporting foreigners in Ushiku. Even after he moved to Haramachida Church, Mai, who was on release, would often visit the church and at times taught English to the pastor's children.

    Miyajima visited her during her second detention at the Tokyo immigration bureau. According to his notes, in Feb. 2017 Mai told him: "My breasts hurt. I'm worried about a lump." But she apparently couldn't get adequate medical care there. The pastor made strong appeals to the bureau, saying that her illness would get worse if she stayed detained. In February 2018, she was again granted provisional release.

    Later, after complaining of abdominal pain, Mai was diagnosed with uterine fibroids and other diseases at a local hospital; breast cancer was also found. She was moved to Kitasato University Hospital in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, where she continued to undergo radiation therapy and other treatment.

    Her lack of health insurance resulted in high medical bills, but supporters took over for Mai, who was unable to pay. But there is a limit to the support they can provide. They tried consulting with the local government to see if she could get health insurance, but local authorities never got in touch.

    In September 2020, her breast cancer recurred and was found to have metastasized in her brain, liver, and bones. It was decided treatment was no longer possible, and she was discharged on Nov. 5.

    (This is part one of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Osaka Photo Department)

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