Japan withdraws immigration bill after death of Sri Lankan sparks criticism

TOKYO, May 18 (Reuters) - Japan's government on Tuesday withdrew a bill that would have made it easier to deport failed applicants for refugee status, officials said, after the death in March of a Sri Lankan woman at an immigration detention centre sparked criticism.

Members of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) abandoned their attempt to pass an overhaul of the immigration law, party officials said, which would have meant asylum seekers could be deported after their third failed application.

The government had said the change would solve the problem of long detentions of asylum seekers. Lawyers, opposition lawmakers and human rights groups said it ran counter to international norms.

Japan's treatment of foreigners facing deportation was put under the spotlight again after the death of 33-year-old Wishma Sandamali at an immigration detention centre in central Nagoya.

Sandamali died in early March after complaining of stomach pain and other symptoms from mid-January, Kyodo news reported. She went to police in August for help with domestic violence and was then detained for overstaying her visa, Kyodo said.

Opposition lawmakers had pushed authorities to show Sandamali's family video footage of her taken while she was in custody but that was turned down on security concerns, according to officials.

Criticism of the bill mounted online and one ruling party official told Reuters there was no point in pushing it through, given the growing backlash. Suga's support fell below 33% in a recent poll by the Jiji news agency, reflecting frustration over his handling of the pandemic.

Japan has long been reticent about immigration and asylum, despite an ageing population and shrinking workforce that economists say could be alleviated by accepting more immigrants.

In 2019, just 0.4% of asylum applications were successful in Japan, against 25.9% in Germany and 29.6% in the United States.

Under the current system, some asylum seekers are granted provisional release from detention centres during their asylum process, meaning they can live relatively freely although they cannot work. Others are held in the centres, where they spend months or even years.

Reporting by Ami Miyazaki and Yoshifumi Takemoto; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Giles Elgood

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