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Frustration grows over deaths, ill treatment at Japan's immigration detention centers

Louis Christian Mballa, who has experienced long-term detention at an immigration center in Japan and says that "immigration authorities are trying to destroy humans through detention," is seen in Tokyo on Dec. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

TOKYO -- Following continuous cases of deaths at immigration facilities across Japan, including the passing of a Sri Lankan woman in March 2021, the government was forced to withdraw a bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which stirred controversy over human rights issues. Amid growing criticism surrounding Japan's treatment of foreign detainees, supporters and lawyers have been demanding a fundamental change in the country's immigration control.

    On Dec. 10, 2021, at the Mito District Court, courtroom number 301, a monitor showed a video of a man writhing in agony, while repeating the words, "I'm dying, I'm dying." The footage was captured in a room of the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, a bit past 7 p.m. on March 29, 2014. The 43-year-old Cameroonian man died the following morning. Over the course of about half a day, the man's cries for help gradually became weaker. However, the immigration center kept the man in his cell, and did not have him examined by a doctor until his death was confirmed. The deceased man's family launched a lawsuit in 2017 seeking compensation against the national government and others.

    Two doctors appointed from both the plaintiff and defendant's side testified during the Dec. 10 hearing. Based on the footage and other material, they were asked to present medical opinions regarding the decisions and actions of the immigration center at the time of the incident. Since 2013, the center had been aware of the man's multiple health issues, including diabetes, which emerged from a medical examination conducted shortly after he was detained. Even during a consultation three days prior to his death, the Cameroonian man complained of chest pains and unsteadiness to his doctor.

    In the witness examination, it was reconfirmed in footage that over an hour before the man was heard saying "I'm dying," he was groaning and presenting a paper with notes asking for staff to help him. The doctor representing the plaintiff's side stated, "It is thought that not enough blood was flowing throughout his entire body, and at this point, he was in a state where he should have been sent to hospital by ambulance."

    However, the defendant, or the national government side, claimed that the immigration facility staff members were incapable of recognizing the necessity of an emergency transport to hospital.

    Partial footage of Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who was 33 when she died at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in March 2021, has also been disclosed to her family and lawyers. It reportedly shows her falling from a bed and pleading for help while struggling. Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, who represents Wishma, said, "All they needed to do was make one phone call to get an ambulance, and send her to the hospital so that she could be administered an IV drip. The immigration bureau is nonchalantly trying to evade responsibility over an issue that clearly has no room for making excuses."

    Supporters call out to detainees before the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau on Dec. 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

    Louis Christian Mballa, a 40-year-old Cameroon-born man who was also subjected to long-term detention at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, said he watched the footage of the Cameroonian man from the aforementioned case, and he had received similar treatment. He said, "I couldn't react even if they touched my body. I think Wishma must have been the same."

    Mballa was separated from his parents at the age of 5 due to clan conflict, and was raised by his foster parents in the neighboring country of the Central African Republic. However, a coup forced him to flee to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he entered Japan in 2002, after obtaining a visa by chance. He was detained at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center from 2016.

    Mballa also experienced health problems during his detention, such as vomiting blood and being unable to swallow food. His original weight of over 90 kilograms also fell to under 70 kg. He recalled fainting and losing consciousness many times. "Even when I asked to be taken to the hospital, it was no use. There were officers who cried tears and told me that even though they insisted that I needed to be examined, their supervisor wouldn't allow it," he said.

    The man was granted provisional release in 2019, and was sent to hospital with the help of an acquaintance. However, when he showed up to the immigration facility one month later, he was informed that he would be detained again on the grounds of gaining weight. Mballa recounted this occurrence, and remarked, "Does this mean that it's a crime for us to eat?"

    The Immigration Services Agency of Japan has revealed that since 2007, when records began, 17 foreign nationals have died in nationwide immigration detention centers. No matter how many deaths arise, the government has not made any attempts to squarely acknowledge its responsibility.

    In September 2021, a Tokyo High Court ruling deemed an immigration bureau's handling of a case unconstitutional. The court decision, which has been finalized, stated that the bureau's action of forcibly deporting two Sri Lankan men one day after they were informed that their refugee status applications were rejected was a violation of the right to a fair trial guaranteed in the Japanese Constitution.

    Lawyer Wataru Takahashi, who represented the plaintiffs, commented: "Similar deportations have been carried out in separate cases. There has been another case where an asylum seeker whose refugee status application was rejected by immigration authorities launched a lawsuit, which ordered the rejection to be revoked. However, immigration authorities rejected the individual's application once more following the ruling." It was a case in which the Immigration Services Agency, which is an external bureau of the Ministry of Justice, belittled the decision of the court.

    On Dec. 21, citizens and other supporters of foreign nationals held a protest before the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau. One participant said, "There are still people who are detained in a terribly emaciated state. Japan's immigration authorities have not changed one bit. They are keeping refugees and immigrants confined, and reporting deaths almost every year. This is plain torture."

    (Japanese original by Jun Ida, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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