Tokyo Notes

Japan Softens on Refugees

After accepting new Burmese exiles, will Japan show more of its humanitarian side?

Japan, a country once essentially closed to outsiders, on Tuesday became the first Asian country to open its doors to refugees under a UN-promoted resettlement program.

The first beneficiaries of the pilot scheme to resettle a total of 90 Burmese refugees here over the next 3 years are 3 ethnic Karen families that had been staying at the Mae La camp on the Burma-Thailand border. The 18 enforced exiles will undergo a 6-month orientation, during which time they will receive language training and help finding work and accommodation.

While Japan should be applauded for launching a resettlement program for people unable to return to their birth nation for fear of death (what are other wealthy Asian nations such as South Korea and Singapore doing?), why has it taken so long for one of the world’s richest nations to open up to political refugees? And why is the intake still so small?

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 750,000 of the 10.4 million refugees under its authority will need to be resettled in the next 5 years. Last year about 84,000 of these people were resettled, many of them in countries relatively receptive to immigrants such as the United States, Canada and Australia.

Japan allowed just 531 to stay here in 2009.

I’m inclined to agree with an editorial in the left-leaningAsahi Shimbun on Friday that slammed Japan’s record on refugees. ‘The “Japan passing” by refugees is a national disgrace to this Asian industrial country,’ it said, concluding: ‘At the heart of the refugee issue is the lack of a national strategy for making Japanese society more open to outsiders.’

One reason why refugees may aim for resettlement in countries other than Japan is language. With English still the global lingua franca, it’s natural for people to want to head to countries where it may be easier for them communicate. And the relatively high cost of living in Japan could also be deterring factor. But if you or your family were being persecuted by a brutal regime, I’m sure you’d be prepared to go anywhere to live in peace and find a way to support your family.

While the six-month orientation period doesn’t seem long enough to learn a language, with continued support from local authorities, the Karen families should be able to build new lives in Japan just as the 11,000 or so Indo-Chinese who have resettled here since the 1970s have done.

Japan, while not without imperfections, is a comfortable country to live in, and a little foresight on the government’s part should be enough to help new immigrants settle in. The nation should use a snippet of its massive economic clout to ensure that this programme does not end up being scrapped as a pilot and help many more people escape from poverty or tyranny.

It’s time for the government to ease its notoriously rigid immigration policy (especially for non-Westerners) and really show the world it cares.