Photo/Illutration Members of Italian Guardia Costiera prepare to bring on board the migrants of a wooden boat near the island of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean Sea, on Sept. 1, 2021. (Reuters file photo)

Two decades ago, at the height of a growing refugee crisis, I visited the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in southern Italy to report on the boatloads of migrants and asylum seekers from North Africa washing ashore there.

Every local rescue authority official I interviewed was uniformly sympathetic to the arrivals who had risked their lives crossing the sea. Many perished on the way.

One rescue official, referring to their plight, explained that no new arrivals are asked if they were asylum seekers or economically motivated migrants.

One major headache for front-line rescue personnel was Italys vexingly complicated application procedure for refugee status.

At the time, Italy had just enacted a law to toughen its immigration policy, and everyone was still struggling with the confusion brought about by the new legislation.

But one senior official said: “Be it poverty or political oppression, each refugee has their own reason for fleeing their country. I just hope all applicants will be granted asylum, except in cases that leave absolutely no doubt that they were fraudulent.”

Japan on June 9 passed into law a revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law.

Of the many issues that have been pointed out about the revised law, the one that causes me the greatest concern is whether Japans system of determining refugee status is functioning properly.

The new system enables the government to deport applicants while their requests are still being processed. I wonder if this system is anywhere close to meeting the international standard of “when in doubt, rule in favor of the applicant.”

In the screening of applications, refugee examination counselors, of whom there are 111, wield considerable influence.

One counselor has stated, “Out of a total of 2,000 cases we examined, there were only six where we were able to determine with confidence that the applicants should be granted refugee status.”

I fear this persons statement could be used some day as grounds for justifying deportation of those who did not meet all the “requirements” on paper.

And with regards to the six cases, did the counselor mean that only these six cases passed the examination, or that officials could find no more than six cases worth examining out of 2,000?

It would be unconscionable if cases that should have been approved got rejected due to oversight. Recognition of refugee status is a life-and-death issue for applicants.

After covering the refugee issue on the island of Lampedusa, I went to Rome to interview police authorities.

At a police station, a refugee from Somalia was being fingerprinted. The police took prints of all his 10 fingertips twice, and then took prints of the entire fingers on both hands--not just the fingertips--once.

That was really a lot of fingerprinting, and I asked the Somali man if he found that to be excessive.

But he replied to the effect, “Compared with life, this is no big deal.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 10

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.