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Was Cameroonian woman's death hours before she received Japan residency avoidable? (Pt. 3)

From left, Masataka Nagasawa, Relindis Mai Ekei, and Yoriyoshi Abe are seen in this photo provided by Mai's supporters.

TOKYO -- Relindis Mai Ekei, a woman from Cameroon, was granted conditional release from an immigration detention facility in Japan where she had been held for overstaying her visa, to get cancer treatment at a hospital. She then spent time in a convent women's shelter in Tokyo, but the cancer progressed quickly. Helped by her supporters, Mai was admitted to a Christian hospital, where she spent her final days.

    As Mai was no longer able to care of herself, the convent run by the Adoratrices Catholic order couldn't host her anymore. Her supporters and others searched for a place to take her, and decided on Social Welfare Foundation St. John's Society Sakuramachi Hospital in Koganei, Tokyo. The Christian hospital is in a quiet residential area, and provides free or low-cost medical care to those who cannot afford to pay for it.

    In the past 10 years, the hospital has apparently accepted more than 40 foreigners in need. Although the government offers preferential treatment such as property tax breaks to hospitals that provide free and low-cost medical services, the burden on the facilities is still heavy.

    Yukiko Saito, a 44-year-old medical social worker and head of the Sakuramachi Hospital's community medical coordination office, said, "Even though it's a burden, it's our mission to accept these patients."

    After Mai was admitted, the hospital consulted with the local Koganei city office about public assistance. But they refused, saying, "Foreigners can't get it if they don't have resident status."

    Mai, a Christian, often prayed with the nuns at the Adoratrices convent and at Sakuramachi Hospital. Whenever she met Yoriyoshi Abe, 39, a pastor who is one of her supporters, she wished for a miracle.

    On Jan. 18 this year, a nurse took a video of her in her hospital bed, and when asked what she wanted to do in the future, Mai replied, "I want to pray to God. I want to study kanji characters. I want to cure my disease."

    On Jan. 21, the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau told the lawyer backing Mai, "We have issued her with residency status. The residence card has been mailed." However, Mai's condition worsened. On Jan. 22, when the hospital staff told her, "Mai, you've got what you've been waiting for," they say she nodded quietly. The next day, at around 5:30 a.m., a nurse on duty came to check on her. Mai was sleeping quietly, but when the nurse came back at around 6 a.m., she had passed away.

    Mai's residence card, issued on Jan. 21, 2021. The card was delivered to her about three hours after her death. (Photo courtesy of Mai's supporters)

    About three hours after her death, the hospital received mail from the Tokyo immigration bureau. Inside was a document explaining her status of residence and a residence card with her picture on it.

    "I wondered what the point was of giving her status of residence after she'd passed away. Why couldn't they have sent it earlier?" Abe lamented.

    Mai's body was flown back to her native Cameroon some three weeks later. About 7 million yen ($64,800) had been spent on her treatment at Kitasato University Hospital, and about 1 million yen ($9,200) at Sakuramachi Hospital.

    After Mai's death, Abe established the volunteer organization Refugees Medical Support Association. According to Abe, their first mission is to donate as much of Mai's medical costs to the hospitals as possible, and then create a fund to support medical care for foreigners.

    Another supporter, Masataka Nagasawa, 67, who has long been involved in providing medical support to foreigners in need, emphasizes, "If Mai's status of residence had been granted earlier, she would have been able to take better care of herself through welfare and health insurance. Along with prolonged detention at immigration facilities, being left alone after temporary release is also a serious problem. I would like to use Mai's loss as an opportunity to pose serious questions to our society."

    According to Japan's Immigration Services Agency, 47 people were granted refugee status in 2020, or just 1.2% of the 3,936 applicants. The extremely low refugee status recognition rate, as well as the practice of detaining those applicants for long periods or keeping them on provisional release with many restrictions, have been strongly criticized both at home and abroad.

    The bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act submitted to the current Diet session includes a "supervisory measure system" that allows refugee claimants to live outside detention centers, but there are still many restrictions and insufficient support, and it is questionable whether this will lead to an improvement in the situation.

    (This is Part 3 of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Osaka Photo Department)

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