Japan's government decided Tuesday to withdraw a bill revising rules on how to accommodate foreigners facing deportation, ruling coalition lawmakers said, amid criticism over the alleged improper treatment of a Sri Lankan woman who died while held at an immigration facility.
The abrupt decision to give up on the passage of the bill during the current parliamentary session through mid-June came amid growing concerns within the ruling camp that pushing through the amendment of the immigration law, which could worsen the conditions for asylum seekers in Japan, may invoke a public backlash.
In seeking to block the proposed legislation, opposition parties demanded the government get to the bottom of the case involving Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, 33, who was held at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau and died on March 6 after complaining of stomach pain and other symptoms from mid-January.
The Justice Ministry turned down an opposition request to release video footage showing Wishma as her condition deteriorated, partly for security reasons, which made it difficult for ruling and opposition parties to find common ground.
Pushing the bill through at a time when activists, including online petitioners, were calling for it to be scrapped risked dealing a blow to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's administration, whose approval rating has been declining over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the ruling parties' decision to scrap the bill, opposition lawmakers withdrew a censure motion against Hiroyuki Yoshiie, who chairs the House of Representatives' Judicial Affairs Committee. The controversial bill had been deliberated by the committee.
Prior to the bill's withdrawal, opposition forces had also threatened to submit a no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa unless the video footage of Wishma is released.
Critics said Wishma's death is evidence of failures in Japan's immigration and asylum system, particularly concerning the indefinite detention of those facing deportation.
Members of Wishma's family held a meeting with Kamikawa on Tuesday evening, during which the minister offered her "heartfelt condolences."
A senior official of the Immigration Services Agency, meanwhile, told the family that it cannot show the video footage, according to a person supporting them.
The government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said at a press conference 17 detainees have died in custody since 2007 including Wishma, without going into specifics such as their nationalities or cause of death.
Opposition parties and activists argued the proposed revision of the immigration law would violate the principle of non-refoulement -- or not returning asylum seekers to the country they have fled from -- because it only allows the deportation procedure to be halted twice while applying for refugee status.
They also criticized it for maintaining detention for those facing deportation as a principle instead of being an exception or last resort.
Under the bill, the government planned to craft some mechanisms to allow foreign nationals facing deportation and detained at immigration facilities to be released, and to protect those who do not qualify for refugee status under the country's strict standards.
Japan only accepts around 1 percent of refugee applications it receives.
Kato declined to say whether the government plans to resubmit the bill in the next parliamentary session, saying only that the Justice Ministry will consult with the ruling coalition and others on how to proceed.
Wishma's younger sisters Wayomi and Poornima arrived in Japan earlier this month and held a funeral in Nagoya on Sunday.
They watched the lower house plenary session while protesters congregated near the parliament building.
"I've heard many people gathered to protest the bill after having learned about my sister. She didn't die in vain," Wayomi, 28, told reporters.
Wataru Takahashi, a lawyer representing the bereaved family, hailed the role protests over the tragedy and media coverage played in securing withdrawal of the bill.
"However, as the issue of long-term detention (of foreign nationals) by the immigration authorities remains unchanged, true reforms will be necessary," he said.
On Monday, the two women visited the Nagoya immigration facility in Aichi Prefecture where Wishma was held to hear in person from officials about their older sister's death but said they were left unconvinced by the explanation.
In an interim report over the incident released on April 9, the Justice Ministry did not determine the cause of death, while her supporters allege the tragedy was caused by insufficient medical treatment provided by the immigration facility.
Wishma entered Japan in June 2017 on a student visa hoping to teach English to children in Japan but she lost her student status when she was unable to pay her tuition, according to her family and supporters.
In August 2020, she sought police protection after fleeing a situation in which she suffered domestic violence at the hands of a fellow Sri Lankan she lived with. Her immigration status was discovered at the time, and she was handed a deportation order.