Photo/Illutration With a photo of the late Wishma Sandamali, her sisters Poornima, second from left, and Wayomi, far left, speak at a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 10. (Rei Kishitsu)

A government agency report on the situation surrounding the questionable death of a Sri Lankan detainee shows a poor commitment to basic human rights principles among Japanese immigration control officials.

The lives and human rights of all people in Japan, regardless of their nationalities and even if they are not legal residents of the country, should be respected and protected.

The Immigration Services Agency of Japan on Aug. 10 released its final report on an investigation into the events leading to the death of Wishma Sandamali, who died of an illness at an immigration facility in Nagoya in March.

Before any discussion on the report’s content, it should be pointed out that the probe was conducted under the initiative of officials at the agency even though independent experts were invited to become involved after a while.

The case should have been rigorously scrutinized by a fully independent panel of experts. This fact alone indicates the agency was not sufficiently aware of the seriousness of what occurred.

Still, the report paints a grim picture of what happened to Sandamali, describing how the detainee’s claim that her health was poor was ignored as officials acted on the assumption that she should be kept in detention. This attitude led to the worst consequence.

The document also points out a slew of problems with Japan’s system to deal with cases of illegal residency, including poor health care services for detainees, the agency's lack of ability to communicate effectively with them and inadequate cooperation among different departments within the agency.

What is particularly distressing is how front-line officers treated her. They thought she was exaggerating her ill health as a ruse to obtain provisional release status and jeered her complaints, according to the report. It is hardly surprising that the report calls for a radical change in the mindset of all officials at the top of a list of improvement measures.

The report includes many other lessons that should be taken seriously.

Sandamali was detained when she turned herself in to a police station, saying that she had been physically abused by the man she was living with. But immigration officials failed to follow the internal rule that they should interview any possible victim of domestic violence to ascertain the facts.

There is a system for monitoring conditions at detention centers by independent experts, but it did not work, either. Sandamali wrote a letter seeking relief to a monitoring committee comprising mainly academic experts, but her letter was left unread for more than five weeks and was opened only after her death.

The committee is meaningless if such a call for help from a detainee is ignored. The members of the panel should take the malfunctioning of the system as their own problem and make a fundamental review of how it is operated as well as their relationship with the agency.

The agency has decided to show the detention facility’s video recording of her condition before her death to her bereft family. The agency initially refused to do so, citing “security reasons.” It needs to make serious efforts to change its culture of secrecy, which is totally unacceptable to the public.

Shoko Sasaki, who heads the agency, acknowledged at a news conference that the death at the detention facility reflects serious problems with the nation’s “immigration control administration” as a whole that transcend the Nagoya facility.

Public distrust of the immigration control system forced the government and the ruling coalition to abandon plans to enact a bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, which would have made it easier to deport failed applicants for refugee status during this year’s regular Diet session.

To regain public trust of the system, the government needs to start immediately working on new rules focused on protecting the human rights of illegal immigrants and detainees.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 11