Wishma Rathnayake moved to Narita, Japan on a student visa in 2017.
Tokyo CNN  — 

As a child, Wishma Rathnayake was fascinated with “Oshin,” a popular 1980s’ television drama about a young girl who rises from poverty to head a Japanese supermarket chain.

Urged by her father to emulate her hero, Rathnayake started learning Japanese with a dream of one day moving to Japan from the small Sri Lankan town of Gampaha, northeast of Colombo.

When her father died, the university graduate convinced her mother she could earn enough money working abroad as an English teacher to fund her retirement.

The family remortgaged their home, and in 2017, Rathnayake moved to Narita, on the outskirts of Tokyo, on a student visa.

Within three years, she was dead.

After overstaying her visa, Rathnayake was detained in Japan’s immigration system, where she died on March 6, 2021, at the age of 33.

Rathnayake’s case made headlines in Japan and fueled debate over the treatment of foreigners in the country, where 27 immigration detainees have died since 1997, according to the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees.

Her death has also exposed the lack of transparency in a system where people can languish for years with no prospect of release – a system that her sisters are now campaigning to change.

Wishma Rathnayake (center) with her younger sisters, Poornima Rathnayake (left) and Wayomi Rathnayake (right).

Chasing a dream

Rathnayake was 29 when she arrived in Narita, and her Facebook feed soon filled with images of tourist sites and new friends.

From Sri Lanka, her younger sisters, Wayomi and Poornima, heard she was attending language classes and seemed to be happy. “She never told us or gave us a sign that things weren’t going well for her,” said Wayomi Rathnayake, now 29.

What her sisters didn’t know was that Rathnayake stopped attending language classes in May 2018 and was later expelled. The same month, she started working in a factory before claiming asylum that September. Her claim was rejected in January 2019, and from then on she was considered an illegal immigrant.

Phone calls home became less frequent, and in August 2020, it became clear why. That month, Rathnayake approached a police station in Shizuoka prefecture, far from home, seeking help to leave her partner.

Rathnayake told the officers her visa had expired and she wanted to go to the Nagoya Regional Immigration Bureau but didn’t have enough money to get there, according to Yasunori Matsui, the director of START, a non-profit that helps foreign nationals detained in Japan.

People opposing the revision of Japan's immigration control and refugee recognition law march in Tokyo on May 16, 2021.

Initially, Rathnayake agreed to return to Sri Lanka, but she changed her mind after her partner wrote two letters threatening to track her down and punish her if she returned home, according to Matsui.

“She believed she would be killed by him,” said Matsui, who met Rathnayake at the immigration bureau in December 2020.

The first her sisters knew she was in trouble was in March 2021, when the Sri Lankan Embassy in Tokyo called to say she was dead.

Rathnayake’s family asked for a report and photographic evidence, but their requests went unanswered, and in May her younger sisters traveled to Japan to seek the truth.

“Her skin was wrinkled like an old person and it was stuck firmly to her bones”Poornima RathnayakeWishma’s sister

When they arrived, they saw Rathnayake in a funeral casket in Nagoya. “She looked so different, so weak and unrecognizable. Her skin was wrinkled like an old person, and it was stuck firmly to her bones,” said Poornima Rathnayake, 27.

During seven months in detention, she’d lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds).

Her sisters wanted to know why.

Most of all, they wanted to see closed-circuit video of her final weeks in custody.

But authorities refused access.

A broken system

For three months, the sisters and their legal team rallied for answers, meeting with officials and demanding the release of the video.

Their calls were echoed by supporters and some politicians advocating for stronger rights for foreign nationals in Japan, and earlier this year a decision on whether to release the footage became a major focus of debate in the country’s Parliament.

At the time, Japanese lawmakers were debating a bill that would have revised the rules on governing foreigners in detention, including provisions to deport people after two failed bids for refugee protection.

The purpose of the bill was to reduce the number of migrants in Japanese detention facilities, which had climbed to 1,054 in 2020, according to data from the Immigration Agency of Japan.

But rights groups, including a group of United Nations experts, said elements of the bill threatened to breach international human rights standards. For example, they said the clause on deportation could violate the principle of non-refoulement by forcing people to countries where they fear persecution.

“The controversy surrounding the bill helped build a national debate around her death and the issue of how foreigners are treated in Japan,” said Kosuke Oie, an immigration lawyer supporting her family.

The bill was eventually scrapped.

Japan has traditionally had a low intake of migrants, though in recent years it has begun accepting more foreign workers.

In 2018, Japanese lawmakers approved a policy change proposed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that created new visa categories to allow an estimated 340,000 foreign workers to take high-skilled and low-wage jobs.

And in a major shift last month, the Japanese government said it was considering allowing foreigners in certain skilled jobs stay indefinitely, from as early as 2022.

“This lack of judicial review has resulted in what some have called a ‘black box’ process”Sanae FujitaUniversity of Essex

But some say Japan still has a long way to go, and that Rathnayake’s death casts a spotlight on an immigration system in dire need of reform.

Sanae Fujita, a researcher at the school of law at the University of Essex, says the main problem is that Japan’s immigration bureau wields great power and is accountable to nobody.

“In contrast to other countries, in Japan the immigration process is managed solely by the immigration agency – there is no court involvement,” she said. “This lack of judicial review has resulted in what some have called a ‘black box’ process, with no oversight.”

In 2019, Human Rights Now called for the prohibition of arbitrary detention in Japanese immigration facilities and related legal reforms, following a hunger strike by 198 detainees at Japanese immigration facilities.

In a statement, the rights group said detention facilities should be utilized as “a measure of last resort to reduce their excessive use.”

Fujita argues Rathnayake’s death could have been avoided, if Japan’s government had listened to the Human Rights recommendations by the UN to Japan. They included imposing a maximum period of detention and allowing detainees to seek an independent review of their case.

A spokesperson for the Immigration Services Agency declined to comment on Fujita’s claims.

Wishma Rathnayake's  family attended a parliamentary session of Japan's lower house in Tokyo, May 18, 2021.

‘Treated like an animal’

In August, a report conducted by Japan’s Immigration Services Agency, with third-party experts including medical professionals, found the Nagoya Regional Immigration Bureau had neglected to provide Rathnayake with proper medical care.

The facility’s top officials and supervisors were reprimanded, and Japan’s minister of justice and head of the Immigration Services Agency issued a formal apology for her death.

And, for the first time in the case of any immigration death, officials allowed Rathnayake’s sisters to watch an edited two-hour video showing her final two weeks in detention. They only managed to watch half.

“What I saw on the clips upset me so much that I felt like there was much worse to be seen”Wayomi RathnayakeWishma’s sister

Poornima Rathnayake said the video made her physically sick.

Wayomi Rathnayake told reporters straight after the viewing that the clips showed her sister falling from bed and guards laughing as milk ran from her nostrils.

“In the video, the guards told Wishma to get up by herself. (Her) repeated calls for assistance went unanswered as the guards urged her to get back on her bed herself. She tried to get their attention, but was ignored,” Wayomi Rathnayake told CNN.

Certain sections were edited, suggesting officials were hiding the truth, she said.

“What I saw on the clips upset me so much that I felt like there was much worse to be seen.”

The sisters eventually saw longer clips of unedited video in October.

They showed staff attempting to feed Rathnayake, even though she couldn’t keep anything down. And on the day before she died, staff didn’t phone an ambulance, even as she failed to respond to their calls, said Oie, the family’s lawyer.

Rathnayake, whose visa had expired, approached the police seeking help to leave her partner.

Denied treatment

The Immigration Services Agency report found Rathnayake had complained about stomach pain and other symptoms for months before her death.

The report states she underwent medical examinations such as urine analysis, blood tests and chest X-rays to determine the cause of the problem.

However, on the day she died, staff at the facility delayed calling emergency services, even as her condition appeared to deteriorate.

The report said, in the months before her death, Rathnayake had been cooperating with immigration authorities, but her demeanor changed when she decided she wanted to stay in Japan.

The report alleges supporters had told her it would be more likely she’d be placed on provisional release if she was sick – a claim detainees’ advocate Matsui refutes. Provisional release allows detainees to live in the community while they await deportation.

Matsui said he urged officials in January to either transfer Rathnayake to hospital or give her provisional release, so supporters could take her there themselves. Another request was made in February, when Rathnayake had become so weak she could no longer grasp a pen, according to Matsui.

But those requests were refused with no reasons given, Matsui said.

Yoichi Kinoshita, a former immigration official, who now runs a non-profit seeking to reform the country’s immigration system, says guards appeared to dismiss her complaints.

“It’s likely that some people working in the detention facility may have thought she was exaggerating her symptoms because she wanted to get out on provisional release,” Kinoshita said.

Overhauling a dysfunctional system

Last month, Rathnayake’s sisters filed a criminal complaint against senior officials at Nagoya Regional Immigration Bureau alleging willful negligence. While the earlier immigration investigation found deficiencies within the system, it did not establish why she died – and who is to blame, according to Oie, her family’s lawyer.

So far, the family’s campaign for justice has had small but significant wins for other people caught in the system.

“The immigration agency hasn’t ever shown a video to a family before and the head of the immigration agency didn’t apologize for detainee deaths either – this is all a first,” said Kinoshita.

“The immigration bureau controls everything… there needs to be a third party to provide a different perspective”Yoichi KinoshitaFormer immigration official

He says more oversight is needed of the agency that controls every aspect of a detainee’s fate.

“The immigration bureau controls everything from the visas for foreigners, their detention and deportation and their provisional release. There needs to be a third party to provide a different perspective, and that could be the court,” he said.

The Immigration Services Agency has proposed some changes following Rathnayake’s death.

In the August report, it said it would look to strengthen the medical care offered at immigration detention facilities and potentially allow sick detainees to be temporarily freed.

It also floated plans to evaluate the behavior of immigration officers, including allegations by detainee advocates.

For Rathnayake’s sisters, the mental strain of fighting for justice has taken its toll.

Wishma’s younger sister Wayomi, 29, returned to Sri Lanka in late October owing to psychological stress caused by watching the footage of her sister in detention.

But for Poornima Rathnayake, who has stayed in Japan, the fight goes on.

“We want those responsible for Wishma’s death to be held accountable because we hope this kind of untimely death won’t ever happen to anyone again,” she said.

“Tomorrow it could be someone else’s brother, sister, friend, mother or father.”

Journalist Seiji Tobari contributed to this report from Tokyo.