Change sought in Japan's refugee policy after papal call

Japan follows a strict policy that fails to guarantee dignity and rights for migrants and refugees, Catholic groups say
Change sought in Japan's refugee policy after papal call

A refugee attends a job placement seminar held by the Japan Association for Refugees in Tokyo. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

Pope Francis' call to accept refugees in Japan comes at a time when asylum seekers face a frosty atmosphere necessitating a policy change in the most advanced Asian nation, says a group of organizations working for refugees.

Toward the end of his week-long visit to Asia, the pope addressed young people on Nov. 25 at Tokyo's St. Mary's Cathedral, calling on them to welcome refugees.

"In a special way, I ask you to extend the hand of friendship to those who come here, often after great sufferings, seeking refuge in your country," he told the Japanese youth, including five asylum seekers and one refugee student.

Since being elected in 2013, Pope Francis has been championing the cause of migrants and refugees fleeing war, persecution, disaster and poverty across the globe.

The papal request comes as Japan fails to ensure the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, said a statement from the Japanese bishops' Commission of Japan for Migrants, Refugees, and People on the Move, Japan Association for Refugees, Catholic Tokyo International Center and Caritas Japan, the social service arm of the Church in Japan.

The situation does not guarantee the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees in Japan, they said.

The groups urged the Japanese people to "sincerely listen to the pope's words" and implement a policy in favor of refugees and migrants.

Japan has accepted more than 10,000 Indo-Chinese refugees and has been working on the resettlement and acceptance of Syrian refugees as students through both public and private programs, the statement said.

However, the "attitude towards asylum seekers ... has been so strict that the number of those who acquired recognition of refugee status last year was limited to 42," it said.

"Some suffered not only from the strict screening process but also from the long period of waiting, from two and a half years on average and up to 10 years," it said.

Refugees also receive limited assistance from government shelters, while those found to be seeking asylum at an airport face detention.

"There is a problem around the detention of foreigners without the status of residence, including asylum seekers," the statement said, adding that the law does not specify the period of detention and allows the Immigration Services Agency to decide that.

Out of 1,253 people who sought asylum, 180 people were detained over two years as of June 30, it said.

Medical assistance poses another problem. It takes two weeks on average for detainees to get a doctor's check-up and they live under severe conditions.

At least 15 people have died since 2007, including one dying of starvation this year, said the statement.

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