Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe
Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo AbeFlash 90

A Japanese program aimed at accepting a small number of refugees from war-torn Syria is under fire for implying that pregnant women are not welcome.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in May that immigration-shy Japan, with a population of about 127 million, would accept up to 150 Syrian students over five years from 2017. However, these 150 - accepted at a rate of 30 students per year - would be treated not as refugees but as exchange students.

The plan is aimed at empowering Syrian youths to make up their lost educational opportunities. The program will be open both to youths in Syria and to those who have already fled to other countries.

The students will be selected through international organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Japan will receive them through the government-sponsored exchange program, and a program from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Though Japan received 7,586 applications for refugee status in 2015, only 27 were granted. However, the Far Eastern country has worked in other ways to help stabilize Syria's volatile situation.

The country announced it would provide $1.5 billion in emergency aid for Syrian refugees in other countries, as well as $6 billion in Middle East assistance. They also plan to train 20,000 people to work in job creation, public administration, and education over the next three years. Abe also promised to send 50 JICA experts to Syrian refugee camps and host countries, in an effort to train personnel. And in In 2014, Japan gave $181.6 million to UNHCR.

However, the Japanese unit of Amnesty International has raised concerns that the exchange student program virtually excludes pregnant women.

The program is advertised as a "Japanese Initiative for the future of Syrian Refugees," and states several requirements for potential applicants.

Originally, the criteria read, "Pregnant applicants are not recommended to apply."

After concerns were raised, Japan changed the wording to, "Before the application, pregnant applicants are advised to consider carefully potential risk of health and life issues of mother and fetus."

JICA said on Wednesday the program's main focus was "not to rescue the underprivileged but to educate personnel" for Syria's reconstruction.

"When a pregnant woman comes to Japan and gives birth, she will have to rest for some time," JICA spokesman Satoshi Murakami told AFP, though stressing that the programme is not meant to exclude expectant women.

"Its focus is to educate people who will contribute to the country's reconstruction and be a bridge between Japan and Syria in the future.

"This is a context different from protecting refugees."

Amnesty International objects to that stance.

"The requirement is problematic because it narrows the window for female applicants," said Kaoru Yamaguchi, adding it discourages refugees from applying.

In March British charity Oxfam assessed Japan should take in some 50,000 Syrians based on the size of its economy.

However, Abe has said he will not take refugees before he has taken care of his own citizens. Japan itself faces the challenge of a declining birthrate and an aging population.

"There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants," he said.

Less than 2% of Japan's population was born in a foreign country, and in order to gain Japanese citizenship, both parents must be Japanese citizens.