Lawyers’ group petitions ministry to improve attitudes of refugee counselors following alleged inappropriate remark

by

Staff Writer

A group of lawyers claimed Tuesday that a female asylum seeker was asked inappropriate questions by a counselor during questioning earlier this year.

Asserting that similar cases have taken place in the past, members of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees filed a complaint against the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau on the same day, demanding improvements in the attitudes and behavior of refugee examination counselors.

“Inappropriate comments have constantly been made” when refugees are questioned about their intentions, Ayane Odagawa, a member of the network, said during a news conference held at the Tokyo District Court, adding that asylum seekers greatly fear verbal abuse.

Odagawa said that in March the female asylum seeker, who was from the Democratic Republic of Congo and claimed she was a victim of rape, was asked by a male counselor “Were you targeted because you are a beautiful woman?”

According to Odagawa, the woman was sexually assaulted while participating in a political protest in Congo. When she arrived in Japan in 2012, she requested refugee status.

Before the network submitted the complaint Tuesday, Odagawa filed a similar document in April and again on Sept. 1, but did not receive a response from the ministry.

When asylum seekers are dissatisfied with the results of questioning by immigration officials — usually when they are not granted refugee status — they can request another hearing conducted by a refugee examination counselor, an expert in refugee-related issues, appointed by the justice minister.

As a part-time government official, the duty of a counselor is to provide an objective opinion and report for the justice ministry after conducting an interviews with an asylum seeker.

As of Sept. 1, there were 89 refugee counselors nationwide. Working in groups of three, there are 21 groups in Tokyo, three in Nagoya, two in Osaka, plus another 11 substitute counselors working for the ministry.

The document submitted by the network also contained past cases of inappropriate comments made by counselors.

It claimed that in July 2016, a female asylum seeker from Myanmar was told by a refugee examination counselor: “You’re too healthy to be a refugee. Real refugees are much weaker.”

Contacted by The Japan Times earlier Tuesday, Isao Negishi, the director of the adjudication division of the Justice Ministry, said the ministry is currently investigating whether the question claimed inappropriate by the lawyers was actually asked.

“We must be considerate of foreign nationals regarding their circumstances, especially if they are refugees,” said Negishi. “When we have to ask delicate questions, words and expressions must be chosen carefully.”

“We constantly warn counselors to be careful in what they say,” he added.

According to Shogo Watanabe, who heads Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, the complaint was handed directly to Negishi at the ministry. However, Watanabe said that Negishi did not make it clear when and how the ministry will respond.

“I strongly feel that the counselors are taking part in the examination process without trusting what the asylum seekers are saying,” said Watanabe. “It’s about time for the system of refugee examination counselors to be revised.”