2021 May 29
“Each time I saw her, her health was deteriorating, and she was getting weaker and weaker…”
– Mano Akemi
By now, we’re sure that you must have seen the news generating quite a buzz about 33-year-old Wishma Sandamali, who passed away on the 6th of March 2021, in a detention centre in Central Nagoya, Japan.
With hopes of understanding more about what happened to Wishma and her experience as a detainee in Japan, we spoke to Mano Akemi, a volunteer at START, a non-profit organisation that helps refugees who are detained in Japan, a Japanese journalist who chose to remain anonymous, and Shawn Frazer, a Japanese activist who has been actively involved in bringing Wishma’s case to the eyes and ears of the public.
Why did Wishma overstay in Japan?
Wishma moved to Japan on a student visa in 2017 and was studying Japanese with hopes of becoming an English teacher in Japan one day. During this time, Wishma met another Sri Lankan man who was living in Japan, and soon they were in an intimate relationship. However, that relationship turned toxic and abusive, where Wishma had to face physical, mental and emotional abuse and trauma. “Wishma had enough money to graduate from school initially because her family mortgaged their house in order to fund her education. But, while Wishma was enduring physical and emotional violence, her boyfriend at the time took the money away from Wishma. That’s why she could not continue her studies in Japan. He also took her smartphone away from her. When her sisters called her, her boyfriend would answer, and they were not allowed to talk to Wishma”, Mano Akemi explained.
These horrendous events in turn resulted in Wishma not being able to fund her education further, which led to her student visa being revoked. Since she was determined to stay in Japan, she then changed her visa status to ‘Designated Activities’, a visa status available for immigrants in Japan. Afterwards, Wishma applied for refugee status to extend her stay in Japan, which was rejected by the immigration authorities in Japan, resulting in Wishma staying in Japan without a legitimate visa status.
How was she detained?
One day, Wishma could no longer bear the violence of her boyfriend, so she appeared at a police station in Shizuoka, seeking protection from him. When Wishma’s credentials were checked at the police station, it was revealed that she was living in the country without a visa and hence was immediately detained at the Nagoya detention centre.
Since Wishma had lodged the complaint against the boyfriend on grounds of domestic violence, he was also arrested but was later released under the ‘provisional release’ status. This resulted in her boyfriend sending Wishma a letter, threatening to harm her and her family if she ever stepped foot in Sri Lanka again. Due to this reason and the lack of repatriation flights heading to Sri Lanka due to the Coronavirus outbreak, Wishma decided to try and extend her stay in Japan.
In Mano Akemi’s opinion, Wishma also endured severe mental abuse and manipulation from her boyfriend, and due to the threat, she may have felt like it was not wise to reach out to her loved ones or the authorities to seek help. Further, Wishma had been the type of person who didn’t want anyone else worrying about her. Especially since her family had to face a lot of hardships to send her to Japan, she may have made an ill-timed judgement to not reach out regarding her situation.
How did Wishma meet Mano Akemi?
After Wishma was detained, she wrote to the non-profit organisation START based in Nagoya. This organisation comprises volunteers who agree to take in detained refugees, provided that they are released under the ‘provisional release’ status.
Essentially the only way that someone could get out of the detention facility, the provisional release status requires the detainee to have a supporter who will accept them upon release, as detainees are not allowed to make an income while they are under the provisional release status. And START asked Mano Akemi to be Wishma’s supporter so that she can be released under the provisional release status.
What did Wishma experience at the detention centre?
“Within the Immigration office, there is a rule and a clear guideline in place that states that if victims of domestic violence are detained, they should be under proper protection and that they should be granted provisional release. But in Wishma’s case, they were not following the guidelines that they themselves created,” said Shawn Frazer.
Even though Wishma had a supporter, she was not granted provisional release. And in late December, Wishma started falling ill while she was detained.
“When I saw her, I thought ‘I do not want her to stay in this facility any longer, for even a day’. When I told her that I would be willing to take care of her, she opened up immediately to me. Since I knew that she was a victim of domestic violence, I asked her if she was okay; if she was okay physically and if her mental health was okay. Wishma then made a gesture to embrace her body and said, ‘this is the first time ever that somebody cared for my health since I arrived at the detention centre,’” revealed, Mano Akemi.
Mano Akemi continued to explain that she was in shock to realise that a victim of domestic violence didn’t receive any care from the staff members at the detention centre. In total, Mano Akemi has visited Wishma 11 times, and the last time she saw her was on the 3rd of March, just 3 days before she passed away.
“Each time I saw her, her health was deteriorating, and she was getting weaker and weaker… she was complaining that she had a severe pain in her stomach since she could not eat or drink.” Mano Akemi clarified.
She continued to reveal that each time she visited Wishma, she would report to the division of the immigration office that takes care of the health conditions and treatments of the detainees, stressing that Wishma needs immediate medical attention and that they should call an ambulance, as Wishma was severely ill. But the only answer she received from them was that they were treating her based on the doctor’s advice.
How can we protect ourselves when living in a foreign country?
The justice systems in most countries (if not all), including ours, have flaws – and errors and malpractices may occur. Thus, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves to the best of our ability, especially when residing in a foreign country as an immigrant.
We urge all immigrants to reach out and voice out any concerns, should you find yourself in a situation that causes you distress. You could consider reaching out to:
- Any family members, friends or acquaintances residing in either Sri Lanka or the migrant country you’re living in.
- The Sri Lankan Embassy situated in the migrant country you’re residing in.
- Sri Lankan or migrant country Police through a family member or a friend, if you cannot reach them directly.
- Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), through a family member or a friend.
Our motherland grieves the loss of one of her daughters in such a tragic manner. Let us all strive to be more cautious, aware of our surroundings and unapologetically loud to protect ourselves.