Wishma Sandamali died on March 6, 2021, at a Nagoya immigration detention center. She had been detained there for over six months, after overstaying her student visa.
At one point, she tried applying for refugee status but her application was ultimately denied.
According to media reports, she is the 18th foreigner to die at a Japanese immigration detention center since 2007. While Japan has always had one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates in the world, her case has put pressure on officials to change how individuals are treated in such centers.
Due to a stress-induced stomach condition, Wishma lost over 20 kg during her time there. Allegedly, her health continued to worsen and by her final days, she had begun to vomit blood.
Despite repeatedly asking to be taken to the hospital, her requests were denied.
The Immigration Services Agency of Japan concluded in a 2021 investigative report that detention center staff showed a lack of awareness of human rights and failed to relay information about her illness. It was also written that some officers believed the detainee was faking illness in order to get provisional release.
In the end, the 13 officers at the Nagoya detention center were not charged. The decision was later ruled unjust by an independent judicial panel.
The Ratnayake family, led by Wishma’s sisters Poornima and Wayomi, are currently suing the Japanese government for having failed to provide their sibling with proper food and healthcare.
CCTV footage of Wishma in the days leading up to her death has also been presented to the court as evidence. Some of the clips have also been released to the public by the family’s lawyers.
In the footage, a frail-looking Wishma can be seen lying in bed covered by a blanket. At one point, she tells the facility staff that “[she] can’t breathe” and that “[she’s] going to die.” However, the guard answered by saying that “[they’d] be troubled if [she] died.”
On the day of her death, one of the staff members can be heard saying that “[her] fingertips felt cold”. She was later confirmed dead by officials.
Wishma, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan originally arrived in Japan in the summer of 2017 on a 15-month student visa to study at a Japanese language school. She eventually moved in with her boyfriend, who she met in Japan.
By the summer of 2018, she had stopped attending classes and was expelled from the school. She subsequently began working at a factory in Shizuoka; it was during that time that she applied for refugee status; it was declined in January 2019.
The following year, she turned herself to the police after facing domestic abuse. Instead of receiving help, however, she was arrested after it was determined that she had overstayed her visa. Wishma initially wanted to return home but was unable to book a flight due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She ultimately chose to stay in Japan and remained at the detention center. According to the report, she began suffering from ill health in early 2021.
But all of this was unknown to her family in Sri Lanka, who was told not to worry if she did not contact them regularly. It wasn’t until they were told by the Sri Lankan police of her passing that they learned what had happened.
The siblings immediately went to Japan to identify her body but were unable to recognize her as she had lost so much weight. Due to Covid restrictions, they were also unable to bring her home, which led her to be cremated in Nagoya.