Japan is being encouraged to move away from its much- maligned approach of handing out cash for refugee relief and to instead deal with the shortage of trained aid workers in Asia.

A three-week international training program for relief workers is being held in Fukuoka Prefecture in a bid to cope with the steadily increasing number of asylum seekers in Asia.

The HELP program — which stands for Health Emergency in Large Populations, as well as for Health, Ethics, Law and Politics — was created in Geneva in 1986 to meet the needs of professionals working in emergency situations.

“Japan was praised for its direct investment along with its personnel dispatched abroad,” said Etsuko Kita, a public health expert at Japanese Red Cross Kyushu International University of Nursing. “But now we need to invite to Japan those future relief workers who cannot afford any medical training in their homelands.”

Japan has often been criticized for just throwing money at the refugee problem, with many analysts calling for major policy changes.

“We can’t ignore the pressure that is building on Japan as civil wars and terror attacks in Asia and the Middle East worsen,” Kita said. “Japan and its refugee relief policies are outdated and have failed to be transparent in their effectiveness.”

The training program, cosponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization, runs through March 29 and has 21 participants.

Among them are domestic doctors and nurses, as well as human rights officials, epidemiologists and public health experts from other Asian nations, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and the Philippines.

HELP has been held around the world in an effort to provide future aid workers with appropriate skills. As of this year, 1,600 health professionals from 120 nations have taken part in more than 50 courses.

Topics covered include food and nutrition, environmental and mental health, communicable disease control, humanitarian law, professional ethics, the rapid assessment of emergency situations, and terrorism.

HELP came to Japan for the first time in response to mounting claims by public health experts that the country, which has shied away from a leading role on the Asian stage amid its economic downturn, has something to gain by caring for people fleeing conflicts.

Some analysts have said that Japan must reinvigorate its foreign policy by funding training programs for people from regions of conflict and disaster — instead of just doling out cash following an emergency.

Tahmina Nooristan, who represents Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, was introduced to the HELP program by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Having lived as a refugee for 10 years in Pakistan, Nooristan has an understanding of the true needs of asylum seekers.

“After this course, I’m hopeful that I can really help the people of Afghanistan, especially women,” she said, referring to the difficulties still faced by Afghan women, even after the downfall of the oppressive Taliban regime.

Numbered among these problems are illiteracy, job shortages and a lack of adequate prenatal and childbirth care.

A Japanese Red Cross official urged Japanese doctors to become more involved in training courses such as the HELP program before working overseas with refugees, citing the challenges they will face in areas of conflict.

In Japan, the official said, most doctors lack experience in this area and can be of little use in emergency situations. They are only educated to work at well-equipped Japanese hospitals and handle a relatively small number of patients, whose living standards are high.

The official said the HELP program could expose them to comprehensive theories and practices aimed at dealing with large endangered populations.

It provides training from professionals who are at the forefront of public health, refugee care, disaster relief, nutrition and human rights concerns, the official said.

Mike Toole, an epidemiologist and head of the Center for International Health in Australia, underlined the importance of “Rapid Needs Assessment” during a HELP lecture.

He said that in emergency situations, relief workers must be able to make quick assessments on issues such as population size, fatality rates and vulnerable groups.

Despite the role it plays, the HELP program cannot be held every year because it receives only a little support from academic and medical institutions, as well as the private sector.

Expensive to host, the program has only been held in Asia on three previous occasions — in Bangkok, Manila and Hong Kong.

There are few grants available to participants, who this time had to pay about 180,000 yen to attend.

“The financial involvement of governments holds the key to ensuring a high level of training,” said Kita, who also worked at the WHO and Japan’s health ministry.

She said that instead of merely donating cash without monitoring its final destination, Japan should subsidize HELP or establish new training programs in Asia and become a leader in the region’s emergency rapid-response efforts.

“Recently, developed countries have become less generous about refugees,” said Toole, who has spent decades as a relief worker.

He pointed out that Australia, Japan, the United States and parts of the European Union are displaying greater reluctance to accept refugees.

Japan can play a crucial role in educating aid workers for Asia, Toole said.

“The new generation of aid workers is more interested in public health and using their own skills to help,” he added.

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