When asked for his view on the U.S. president’s executive order to ban the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response was very disappointing.“We are not in a position to express the view of the Japanese government,” he said at the Upper House on January 30. Not surprisingly, he did not bring up the travel ban’s issue when he met President Donald Trump earlier this month.
In contrast to the clear disagreement with the travel ban expressed by other world leaders, the Japanese leader’s response received criticism from the opposition and civil society. Many theorized that the prime minister had avoided criticizing the new U.S. president in order to protect Japan’s national interests, in particular its economy and security. Yet others pointed out a more fundamental problem: Japan cannot point its finger at any other country’s immigration policy.
Japan’s record on immigration and refugees is not something that the country can be proud of. In 2016, Japan granted refugee status to only 28 people out of 10,901 applicants. In other words, 99 percent of applications were rejected. Seven Afghan nationals, four Ethiopians and three Eritreans were among those lucky 28 individuals. An additional 97 persons were given a permit to temporarily stay in the country based on “humanitarian considerations.” Although this quasi-refugee status may sound “considerate,” those with this status cannot use the government’s shelters and allowances for refugees. As a result, they have to seek help from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to establish a life in Japan.
In 2015, Japan granted a refugee status to only 27 people out of 7,586 applicants. It is shocking to know that in 2016 the county accepted only one more refugee from the previous year, despite the number of applications increasing by 44 percent. The government claims that most of the applications were groundless, filed so that migrants can stay longer in Japan and work during the screening period. Based on this belief, the Justice Ministry reportedly plans to decentralize the process in order to “fast-track rejections.” Such a non-human rights-based approach by the government would not only discourage those seeking safety to apply for refugee status in Japan, but also spread negative prejudice against asylum seekers among the public.
In response to the increasing pressure to share the burden of the recent humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, Japan has introduced a special program to host 300 Syrian refugees from 2017 to 2021. Every year, 20 Syrians refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are accepted as students through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). As they can bring their family members to Japan, the program is estimated to include 300 individuals in total. According to the report, the program will not request immediate return of the students after they complete their studies, but they can receive support for settlement given the non-promising situation in Syria.
While this new measure is a step forward for a country which has kept its door mostly shut to people seeking safety, the number remains far too low. There is also a question that should be answered: Why only accept refugees as students? There are a significant number of Syrians who would not be qualified to undertake a high-level education course in Japan but still desperately need asylum.
In fact, despite its decreasing population and serious demand for manual labor, the Japanese government has been reluctant to welcome unskilled foreign workers. Under Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, foreign workers without advanced or specialized skills cannot be granted residential status. Consequently, many migrants from other Asian countries were working as undocumented migrants in the 1980s, supporting the rapid bubble economy. In 1990, the government amended the Immigration Control Act in order to reduce irregular migration, which has allowed foreign nationals of Japanese descents (nikkeijin) to lawfully engage in manual labor. As a result, second- and third-generation Japanese have migrated from South American countries, mostly from Brazil and Peru. This change was made based on the assumption that nikkeijin can easily integrate into Japanese society. Of course, it could not work out that simply; many had to struggle to adapt to a culture that was foreign to them.
In addition, the government introduced the “Technical Intern Training Program” in 1993. While the program’s official purpose is to transfer skills to developing countries through training in Japan as part of international cooperation, it has been criticized for a long time as a source of cheap manual labor. There have been reports of labor exploitation and other human rights violations by companies hosting the interns.
Japan is one of the top donors to the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR). It contributed $164,726,114 in 2016, making Japan the fourth largest donor after the United States, European Union, and Germany. Yet instead of turning this generosity to welcome refugees on its soil, Japan crosses its arms to those who actually arrive on its doorstep. On January 30, when discussing the U.S. travel ban, Abe added after his response, “At any rate, we believe the international community should jointly cope with refugee issues.”
Saying the international community “should jointly cope with refugee issues” seems to be the prime minister’s way of differentiating Japan’s response from the rest of the world. After all, the Japanese leader was not encouraging about accepting Syrian refugees in his September 2016 speech at the UN General Assembly in New York: “As an issue of demography, I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, by elderly people, and we must raise [the] birth rate,” he had said. “There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.” These days, such an inward-looking statement sounds all too familiar to many of us.
Not only were the prime minister’s statements disheartening, but they were also contradictory. Refugees can surely contribute to the domestic labor market and to society as a whole by sharing their talents and bringing diversity. Accepting more refugees would not affect the labor participation of women and older people, but rather help society become more inclusive and tolerant to different groups.
Japan is considered by the international community as an industrialized and democratic country. Yet the government has been reluctant to substantially share the burden of addressing the current humanitarian crises, focusing instead on financial contributions to the UNCHR. However, if the government truly believes in collective efforts by the international community, it should demonstrate this belief by proactively receiving refugees who are waiting in camps to find their future homes. Closing Japan’s doors in faces of those in anguish should not be justified by pointing to the flimsy excuse of national development. It’s about time for Japan to open its door to welcome refugees.
Taisuke Komatsu is a human rights advocate from Japan currently working as the UN Advocacy Coordinator of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). He holds a masters degree in Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Essex in the UK.