Japan's Role in the Refugee Crisis


Japan has never been famous for its acceptance of foreigners – and this insularity shows in its refugee policy. While no one can find fault with Japan’s financial generosity in support of refugees, its acceptance of only 11 candidates out of about 5,000 asylum applications in 2014 is nothing to be proud of.

Last year, Japan gave $181.6 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, making it the second largest donor behind the United States. In the first half of this year, Japan has already given $167 million to the UNHCR, again, ranking second. Furthermore, back in January, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Egypt, he pledged $200 million in aid specifically for refugees from Iraq and Syria displaced by the rise of the Islamic State (IS).

However, generous financial action has not translated to a welcome for refugees. Japan is aware of the refugee crisis swamping Europe, with the UNHCR expecting at least 850,000 people to be displaced by the Syrian civil war this year. In response, Yasuhisa Kawamura, spokesperson for the Japanese foreign ministry, said in a statement: “Japan, in collaboration with the international community including the United Nations, will consider what it can contribute in response …” It appears that Japan stands ready to dole out more cash – but not ready to accept more refugees (though Hiroaki Ishii, executive director of the Japan Association for Refugees, believes that could change).

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In fact, Japan’s Ministry of Justice is considering changes that could potentially make it harder for applicants to seek asylum in Japan. These proposed changes would deal more strictly with individuals who apply because they want to continue working in Japan, rather than because of persecution back home. Measures include deporting failed applicants, curbs on repeat applications, and pre-screening new asylum seekers. UNHCR, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and activists criticize the proposals for not providing enough protection for potential refugees and making it even harder for potential refugees to be granted recognition.

Hiroaki Sato, a Ministry of Justice official, claims that “we’re not looking to increase or decrease the number of refugees coming to Japan, but to ensure real refugees are assessed quickly.” And indeed, it is hard to assess the net impact of the proposed changes – which also include widening the definition of a refugee. Currently, Japan recognizes as refugees those who fear persecution in their home country due to ethnic, religious, or political reasons. Fear of physical abuse may become a legitimate reason to be granted asylum status. But those who are fleeing conflict will continue to not be recognized, according to Sato.

Perhaps the greatest irony in all this is that Japan actually needs more people. Of course, refugees are not the world’s top-earning migrants, but at the end of the day (or the century, more aptly), Japan is simply going to need more labor. Taking a lead in addressing the refugee crisis – and resettling them in Japan – will undoubtedly be difficult. Financially, Japan still struggles to recover from decades of deflation, and bureaucratically, any functioning framework to accept and assimilate refugees into Japanese society would require more inventiveness than Japanese policymakers have demonstrated so far.

But beyond making demographic sense in the long-term, resettling refugees will also burnish Japan’s humanitarian credentials on the international stage, and could head off another round of criticisms about Japan’s “checkbook diplomacy.” Peter Sutherland, a special representative of the UN secretary general for migration and development, has already called on Japan, the United States, and wealthy Gulf states to “face their responsibilities” with regards to Syrian refugees this week.

Similarly, UNHCR’s Japan office wrote in a July position paper: “Given the dire global refugee situation, with an ever increasing number of new refugee emergencies, including the ongoing Syria crisis, it is hoped that the Government of Japan will favorably consider the admission of Syrian refugees on humanitarian grounds, in order to preserve the protection space for Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries, as an important sign of international burden and responsibility sharing (emphasis added).”

Instead of focusing their energies on how to make minor adjustments to the letter of the law and quibbling over details, Japanese policymakers should engage in a creative and far-ranging effort to reinvent the immigration system and inject much-needed dynamism into Japanese society. Refugees would only be a small piece of the any such comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system, but there is potential here for Japan to see the refugee crisis as a catalyst to truly embrace its place in the world as a humanitarian leader.

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