Hostage crisis puts work of aid groups on nation’s public agenda


Staff Writer

Groups with a stake in the Islamic State hostage crisis include aid teams who at times have struggled to keep the Syrian refugee crisis on the agenda back home.

The events of the past week have thrown the realities of the region into harsh focus, raising awareness of Syrians’ needs but also potentially turning the Japanese public against involvement there. The cruelty displayed by Islamic State extremists in beheading a helpless hostage may fuel prejudice against Muslims and aversion to aiding causes in the Middle East.

The Kyoto-based Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development, better known as Nicco, is one NGO that supports Syrians affected by the ongoing civil war. Since 2012, the group has distributed aid such as winter clothing and school supplies to a large number of refugees living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Zarqa, Jordan.

“The hostage crisis will probably help many people to learn about our humanitarian aid in the region for the first time,” Norimasa Orii, the group’s secretary general, told The Japan Times.

While the group welcomes greater public interest in its activities, Orii said he fears criticism from people who mistakenly believe the group is engaged in unnecessarily risky work.

The group’s efforts comprise only a small part of overall NGO assistance to the region, but Orii stressed it aims to remain engaged. “We want to continue to provide our assistance to the Syrian people,” he said.

Orii also said that despite public shock at the killing of self-styled security contractor Haruna Yukawa and the detainment of journalist Kenji Goto, the Japanese people need to realize that violence has long been part of life for many civilians in the area.

“We’ve assisted Syrian people in the midst of war,” he said. “Similar kidnappings have taken place in the country” ever since the civil war erupted in 2011, he said.

A spokeswoman for another Japan-based NGO providing aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan, said, “This incident won’t halt our assistance for Syrian refugees.”

She added: “If we stop supporting those people, they will never have a chance to rebuild the country.”

The group conducts work at various locations, including the Zaatari refugee camp. It currently has several dozen staffers working at the camp.

The spokeswoman, who requested the organization’s name be withheld due to safety concerns, said the hostage crisis will probably require the group to review security, but it hopes the events will not turn the Japanese public against Muslims.

“Many Muslims in Japan have offered prayers (for the captives),” she said. “I hope the crisis will give people a chance to think about diversity and to respect different cultures and religions.”