The justice minister acknowledged on Friday that a male refugee counselor asked a female asylum seeker from Congo an inappropriate question about sexual assault during questioning earlier this year.
“We think it was an inappropriate (question). This is extremely regrettable,” said Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa at a news conference.
Members of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees filed a complaint against the Immigration Bureau earlier this month, demanding improvements in the attitudes and behavior of refugee counselors. The group also asserted that similar cases had occurred in the past. The ministry oversees the bureau.
In March, the asylum seeker, who is from Congo and said she had been raped there, was asked by a male counselor, “Were you targeted because you are a beautiful woman?” according to Ayane Odagawa, a member of the network.
The woman said she was sexually assaulted while participating in a political protest. When she arrived in Japan in 2012, she requested refugee status.
Before the network filed the complaint, Odagawa had filed a similar one in April and again on Sept. 1 but had not received a response from the ministry.
Odagawa welcomed the ministry’s admission but also questioned why it took so long to reach this conclusion.
“It is important to consider how (the ministry) will improve” the way counselors conduct questioning,” she said.
The minister said those involved in the refugee status examination process should be aware of the importance of human rights, and that this awareness should be consistent across all officials.
When asylum seekers are dissatisfied with the outcome of their questioning by immigration officials — usually when they are refused refugee status — they can request that a hearing with a refugee examination counselor. The counselors are experts in refugee matters and appointed by the justice minister.
As a part-time government official, the duty of a counselor is to provide an objective opinion on an asylum seeker and submit a report to the justice ministry after the interview.
There were 89 refugee counselors nationwide as of Sept. 1.