UNHCR exec lauds refugee strides, urges more

Japan has room to boost resettlers, show way in Asia

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is grateful for the support Japan has given to the organization’s work over the years, and hopes the government’s refugee resettlement program proves successful and continues to expand, the agency’s deputy high commissioner said in a recent interview.

Alexander Aleinikoff, who assumed the global agency’s No. 2 post in February 2010, was in Japan last week to speak and exchange opinions with various lawmakers, government officials and NGOs regarding the UNHCR’s activities and Japan’s refugee policies.

“We are heartened by the creation of a resettlement program here, and we hope it grows and is sustained into a central feature of Japanese refugee policy,” Aleinikoff said Friday during an interview with The Japan Times.

The organization is celebrating on July 28 the 60th anniversary of the 1951 U.N. Convention on refugees, while Japan commemorates the 30th year of its ratification of the document, which took place on Oct. 3, 1981. It defines who constitutes refugees, their rights and the legal obligations of host countries.

Japan, the second-largest donor to the UNHCR following the United States, launched a pilot third-country resettlement program last fall, accepting five ethnic Karen families who fled their homes to escape persecution by Myanmar’s military junta.

In total, the government plans to accept 90 people from the Mera refugee camp in Thailand over a three-year span.

In terms of resettlement, the top three receiving countries in 2010 were the U.S. with 71,362, Canada with 12,098, and Australia with 8,516. The number of resettled refugees accepted by the three countries makes up about 90 percent of the total resettled refugees in the world, raising concern of a growing gap between resettlement needs and available places.

“Countries participate in all sorts of ways. Some countries in the developing world accept millions of refugees — Kenya has 300,000 or 400,000 Somali refugees,” Aleinikoff said. “Other countries give lots of aid, other countries have major resettlement programs. The U.S. gives lots of money to UNHCR and it also takes in many refugees, so there are lots of ways to assist refugees.”

Although Japan is the first Asian nation to take part in the third-country resettlement program, there is general criticism that the speed of the application process for asylum seekers is too slow, and the number awarded refugee status too small. Japan annually receives more than 1,000 applications from refugees seeking asylum, but only a handful are accepted.

And while there are signs that the government may establish a new organization to deal with refugee issues instead of the Justice Ministry, which is also responsible for enforcing immigration control, such a change would take a long time.

“Countries handle their asylum systems in many different ways, and there’s no one way to do it.

“The crucial thing is that any body that handles asylum claims do so in a fair way, do so by providing fair procedures and processes and be adequately informed about home-country conditions to be able to adjudicate those claims,” Aleinikoff said. “I have no particular view on what the structure should look like as long as the process is producing fair and credible determinations.”

Aleinikoff, a law professor and dean at Georgetown University currently on leave from the college, said that while the UNHCR has expanded its operations over the decades, there is no foreseeable prospect that the world’s refugee situation will settle down.

“We’ve learned there will always be displaced people in this world, there will always be crises for people to flee, unfortunately, and there will always be need for international protection,” he said.

The organization recently announced that the number of forcibly displaced people in the world has risen to its highest number in 15 years, with an estimated 43.7 million refugees and internally displaced people at the end of last year. And with the recent civil war in Libya triggering a massive outflow of people — estimated at more than 1 million — to neighboring countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, the situation remains dire.

“Nations must keep their borders open for people who are fleeing, and there needs to be basic aid, like housing, forms of shelter, food, medical care, school for kids. . . . Many of the Libyan refugees who have fled to Tunisia have been taken care of by families, so assistance to the local communities who are bearing the burden of the refugee flow is also important,” he said.

And while Europe has voiced concern over an influx of North African migrants, including many Libyans, Aleinikoff said the number is small compared with the entire refugee population. “Eighty percent of the world’s refugees and displaced people are taken care of in the developing world, and yet it seems some of the loudest objections come from the developed world,” he said.