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JICA discouraged pregnant Syrian refugees from coming to Japan

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) -- which is involved in accepting refugees as exchange students from war-torn Syria to Japan -- has come under fire for having discouraged pregnant women from applying to come to Japan as refugees.

    Specifically, JICA had a clause in its application criteria stating that, "Pregnant applicants are not recommended to apply," which drew criticism from experts and human-rights groups -- who claimed that the clause was "a violation of gender equality." Consequently, JICA deleted this clause on Dec. 21.

    As many Western countries continue to welcome large numbers of Syrian refugees as part of a humanitarian effort in response to the conflict in Syria, Japan has been criticized for "closing itself off to refugees." With this in mind, the Japanese government decided to welcome 150 Syrian refugees as exchange students on a temporary basis, with JICA planning to accept 100 refugees over the next five years.

    Eligible applicants for JICA's exchange program are people who are based in either Jordan or Lebanon, and who have been officially recognized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as refugees. Upon being accepted, the refugees study the Japanese language before completing a master's degree in, as a general rule, two years at a Japanese graduate school.

    In the English version of JICA's application guidelines, the criteria stated that applicants should be between 22 and 39 years of age, and also be in good mental and physical health. However, the criteria guidelines also discouraged applications from pregnant women, which led to human rights groups such as Amnesty International Japan criticizing this clause, and ultimately leading JICA to remove it from its website.

    With regard to the clause, JICA's Middle East Division 20 has said that, "The decision to discourage pregnant women from applying was done in light of prioritizing health of the mother and the baby. However, in hindsight, we did not think this issue through deeply enough."

    Keiko Tanaka, co-leader of the Osaka-based nongovernmental organization RAFIQ -- which supports refugees in Japan -- commented that, "Vulnerable refugees such as pregnant women are the ones that need to be protected the most. The JICA clause gave the impression that the handling of pregnant refugees in Japan is seen as being too much hassle."

    Saburo Takizawa, a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Toyo Eiwa University, who is an expert on Japan's refugee policy has stated, "Syrian refugees include women who have been sexually assaulted by members of the Islamic State militant group and other aggressors, and the issue of whether women are actually pregnant or not is delicate. The level of understanding regarding refugees is insufficient and (JICA's) general attitude is far too insensitive."

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