Europe’s approach to Syria exodus contrasts with Japan’s dodging of refugees

by and

Staff Writers

As Europe faces what is possibly its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, the issue remains a faraway problem for Japan. But with the paltry number of refugees admitted into the country each year — a mere 11 in 2014 — some say there is plenty of room for Japan to play a much more expansive and important role.

Could the journey thousands of kilometers away to Japan be a realistic option for Syrians fleeing their war-torn nation?

On Thursday, the flood of refugees — many from conflict-hit Middle Eastern countries — continued to stream into Europe. In desperate bids to escape, many are gambling their lives on making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

The United Nations estimated earlier this week that at least 850,000 people were expected to cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge on the continent this year and next, though it admitted that even that figure was conservative.

Such astronomical figures have prompted some in Japan to take a long, hard look at its strict refugee policy and how to fix a multitude of pervasive structural problems that have stifled its humanitarian efforts.

While known for providing huge sums in aid on the international stage, Japan has largely been absent from the realm of hosting refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Japan was the No. 2 contributor to the U.N. refugee agency in 2014, donating more than $181 million. But in the same year, Japan’s Immigration Bureau approved just 11 of the 5,000 applications — a mere 0.2 percent — filed by those seeking refugee status.

While Tokyo granted refugee status to three Syrians in 2014, according to the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees, it has only issued special visas to Syrians since then based on what the government calls “humanitarian considerations.” Under these visas, however, it remains difficult for refugees to bring over their families and create a more stable life in Japan. Compared with those who are granted refugee status, those who receive special visas are ineligible for government assistance, such as Japanese classes and vocational training.

“Given the dire global refugee situation, with an ever increasing number of new refugee emergencies, including the ongoing Syria crisis, itis 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,” the UNHCR’s Japan office wrote in a July position paper.

“Such a humanitarian admission can take various forms, including through liberal visa arrangements, family reunification as well as labor migration schemes.”

The government’s apparent reluctance to grant refugee status has prompted at least one lawsuit by Syrian asylum seekers who claim that Japan’s way of interpreting what constitutes a refugee is, by global standards, “outdated” and “rigid.”

These policies have prompted a raft of criticism from both within and outside the country.

Shiho Tanaka, coordinator for the public relations unit at the Japan Association for Refugees, claimed that Tokyo’s approach to refugee issues does not address the assistance needs of the current crisis and lags behind that of other countries confronting the influx of displaced persons.

“Many countries in Europe, which have seen a sharp increase in asylum seekers in recent years, have been broadening their refugee definitions and support for asylum seekers, taking into account their actual needs,” Tanaka said. “They have been addressing the situation by accepting more refugees, still in accordance with the Convention (Relating to the Status of Refugees) and UNHCR guidelines.

“In comparison, Japan has only been processing the applications by strictly abiding by the convention and related guidelines without referring to how other countries have been addressing the changing situation,” Tanaka added.

But a refugee inspector at the Immigration Bureau, part of the Justice Ministry, argued that there are many problems associated with processing refugee claims.

The inspector said that while all refugee claims are screened in accordance with the convention guidelines, those fleeing war zones are not necessarily eligible for assistance.

The convention specifies that those who demonstrate they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group should be deemed refugees.

“But the fact they come from a war zone does not qualify them as a refugee,” he said. “It doesn’t mean, however, they should be sent back to their countries. The point is they can only be granted the refugee status if the information provided matches the requirements specified under the convention.”

Critics have also assailed the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in March pledged $200 million in aid to help refugees fleeing the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Two Japanese were beheaded later that month by the extremist group after being held for ransom. Detractors say that aside from throwing cash at the terrorism and refugee problems, Abe’s administration has done little to open Japan’s doors to those affected.

Earlier this week, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Japan was working with the international community to determine what it could contribute in response to the requests for assistance related to Syria.

Meanwhile, Australia said Wednesday that it would accept 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in addition to its existing humanitarian intake of 13,750 refugees for the year.

Mieko Ishikawa, director of Forum for Refugees Japan, said that the Japanese government’s efforts lack transparency, and that its failure to set out specific goals and solutions for any strategy in response to the Syrian refugee crisis have been disappointing.

“In recent years many countries have responded, admitting thousands of people in accordance with the (UNHCR-backed) third-country resettlement program,” she said.

A pilot resettlement program was introduced in Japan in fiscal 2010 to accept Myanmar refugees in Thailand, and was later expanded to include refugees staying in Malaysia.

“But amid the recent crisis, the government, which could apply the existing resettlement and humanitarian emergency aid programs to Syrian refugees, does not appear to be considering such a move,” Ishikawa said. “Unless the quota or the conditions are revised, intake of Syrian refugees will not be possible.”

Also, Ishikawa said, Japan has a reputation for accepting mainly high-profile refugees who are obvious targets of persecution and considered at high risk.

“But most Syrians fleeing the country are common people, not well-known,” she said.

JAR’s Tanaka believes that one of the biggest problems with Japan’s refugee recognition system was written into its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

“Instead of focusing on providing protection in consideration of applicants’ predicaments, the (government) shows more interest in the process of determining who can be granted the refugee status,” she said. “Such procedures cause asylum seekers to wait for years for their claims to be assessed.”

Tanaka said the convention clearly spells out who is a refugee and obliges all signatories to adhere to this definition. But since there are no guidelines on how the assessments should be carried out, each country has taken a different approach, which is reflected in their varied acceptance rates.

And while Japanese immigration officials have been known to defend their low approval rates by citing the lack of infrastructure to support people with different religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds, Tanaka believes this should not be considered a decisive factor in the assessment process.

Ishikawa of the Forum for Refugees Japan, points out that accepting Syrian refugees might even help Japan defuse its demographic time bomb, by allowing them to contribute to regional revitalization.

As an example of a past success, she cited the intake of more than 11,000 Indochinese refugees from 1978 to 2005, which led to the development of a grass-roots community in Japan.

In that sense, she said, there would be fewer obstacles to integrating the Syrian refugees with Japanese society, because they already have a support network.

“The Muslim community in Japan, with growing businesses addressing their needs, such as accessibility to halal products or mosques, is more securely established than people think,” she said.

Still, actually putting down roots in Japan would likely prove to be a formidable obstacle.

“Acceptance of a large group of Syrian refugees might be challenging for both sides — for Japanese society and those granted refugee status — and would require the establishment of a community infrastructure,” JAR’s Tanaka said.

But Tanaka said there could also be benefits.

“Unlike people coming to Japan intending to stay for a short period of time, those who flee their countries seeking protection and resettlement opportunities are highly motivated and have been recognized as valuable capital in the workplace.”

  • Orion Pax

    NO! Japan is doing a great job not letting these “migrants” in. Look at what they’ve already done to european nations with politicians stupid and corrupt enough to let them in. the u.k. has issues with muslim supremacist jihadists are already in the faces of the native citizens, raping British girls and the stupid incompetent british police are too powerless to stop them because if they do, they’d be branded racist; sweden is now the rape capital of europe since they started letting more and more muslims into the country; muslims in france have set up sharia enclaves where the native French police could not even go in there because it’s too dangerous for them (not to mention they’re jackass politicians have disarmed them, that’s why cops were begging for their lives during the charlie hebdo attacks). wherever muslims go, they simply spell trouble. in the US, allowing muslims in caused 9/11, and now we have several muslim supremacist front organizations disguising as “human rights” advocates that in reality have ties to vicious, violent terrorist organizations (cair).

    Japan doesn’t have this problem. It would be a grave mistake for Japan to let these “migrants” in. the demonic media is playing with people’s emotions when they show small groups of women and children in their cameras, plastering it all over TV. in reality, these “migrants” are able-bodied men of fighting age. when they get to your countries, since most probably don’t have the skills, education and the knowledge of the language, they will be radicalized. that will be the beginnings of your troubles Japan, if you start letting these “migrants” in. don’t be swept by the corrupt, demonic media and the new world order they are working for. you are a strong nation, with a resilient people. letting them into your nation will be a disaster, just as it is turning out now in several european nations and the US, countries with very corrupt, very evil, very demonic politicians.

  • Orion Pax

    and stop, STOP listening to the useless nations (U.N.). it’s a worthless organization just designed to leech off industrialized nations. can you take this bullcrap organization. it has iran as head of their human rights commission for crying out loud. the whole u.n. is a joke. do not let them control you Japan, or you will end up like the United States, a weakening superpower.

  • Sam Gilman

    I think the more or less virtual ban on accepting refugees is both wrong and counterproductive. People are not having enough children here. A well-managed refugee acceptance programme could be helpful for Japan as well as being the right thing to do. (By well-managed, I mean done a lot better than the way the influx of migrants from Brazil were managed, without enough language and social-cultural support).

  • tisho

    According to international law, it is illegal to deny asylum to people who come as refugees, regardless if they had came illegally or not. That’s why Japan wants to change the interpretation of who is considered a refugee, in order to make sure they don’t violate international law. Classic tactic of wordplay to bypass international law. That being said, it is best for refugees not to go to Japan. If i were a refugee, Japan would be the last place i would want to go. You will be basically treated like a prisoner, not given any opportunities to work or develop your life farther.

  • J Steel

    And Japan is making the right choice for its society and people by refusing to let in refugees. If the point is so that the refugees are safe and have a place to live, then they are technically already safe in neighboring areas like Lebanon and Jordan. Going to Germany already makes them not refugees but economic migrants. In that case, Japan is certainly not the place they will want to be considering the enormous differences in culture and lifestyle.

    Japan is also incredibly safe, clean, and efficient precisely because it does not have the problems that Europe is facing trying to integrate cultures that are polar opposites. As for the very strange argument I hear sometimes about how this can help Japan’s low birthrate, those people need to think a little. Why is it an issue that Japan has a low birthrate? If it’s the potential strain on health and community resources then how does bringing in migrants with no skills and completely no understanding of the culture or language help in this regard. Germany is already predicting that it will spend over $6 billion on the migrants coming in this year. It is already placing enormous strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources like education. Japan certainly does not need these problems in their country and this money can be much better spent on its own citizens.

    And as an ending note, the current crisis is the direct cause of U.S. and Europe war actions and political meddling in the Middle East. The U.S. is being very unfair to Europe as well by letting it bear the full brunt of this crisis considering that it was the main initiator of recent conflicts in the Middle East. It is also a pity that European citizens, including people in countries like Hungary which played no influential role in the cause of the refugee crisis, now have to face the consequences made by the few top European leaders.

  • Old Man, Torbay.

    These are not refugees. They are invaders.
    There is a minute percentage of women and children sprinkled amoung them to evoke sympathy. Do not be fooled.
    The vast majority are young, able bodied men of fighting age who are no doubt linked to ISIS. They have no intention of assimilating into the society of countries who offer a helping hand. Their intention is the destruction of anyone or anything that offends them.
    Japan must not let them in.

  • COYP

    The ones in Turkey and Lebanon are refugees the ones who cross multiple borders and try to pick and choose their destination are economic migrants.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Japan and others could do with a controlled number of economic migrants but a distinction should be made the word refugee is being bandied around too much to pull on the heartstrings of the facebook and buzzfeed generation who have quickly moved on from Cecil the lion and Syrian refugees is their cause for this week.

  • Stephen Kent

    Although Japan was not involved in creating the situation in Syria that led to the current refugee crisis, I feel that with the prime minister’s new security legislation currently going through parliament, the refugee conversation is one that needs to be had in Japan, since displaced persons are an inevitable consequence of armed conflict and there is a higher chance that Japan will become involved in such a conflict after the legislation is inevitably passed.

    Personally, I can’t help but feel not at all threatened by these refugees, as despite what a lot of media would have us believe, most if not all of them seem to be normal people who had normal jobs (up to now I’ve seen engineers, lawyers, doctors, and surgeons being interviewed) and are just trying to get out of a situation where their lives are obviously in danger; they are not some kind of undercover ISIS army. The whole ‘lack of infrastructure’ argument (including, when it comes to Syrian refugees, a lack of mosques and halal meat as claimed by some – as if just praying and not eating meat wouldn’t solve those issues) seems to me to be a bit of a cop out for a country that is a signatory to the UN refugee convention, and it sounds like an indirect way of saying “we just don’t want to take in any refugees”, but again I suppose you could make the argument that this particular situation has very little to do with Japan. What I feel should be asked, however, is would the Japanese government be willing to accept war refugees if they were the result of a conflict in which Japan’s armed forces had been involved? Or if one of the parties in such a conflict was a client of newly unrestrained Japanese arms manufacturers? That kind of question needs to be asked in Japan – the focus should not just be on what does or does not constitute self-defence.

    While the situation in Syria may not be related to Japan, I think it would be great if the Japanese government were to offer to take in some Syrian refugees, even a relatively small number, as a humanitarian gesture. But I don’t think this is likely to happen as I feel one of the reasons they (and most governments in general) are reluctant to do so is because helping refugees demonstrates to people that in fact the resources to provide significant assistance to those in need are indeed available, but simply giving them to people flies in the face of the “you have to work in a job to deserve food and a livelihood” doctrine that we are all brought up to believe.

    From a broader perspective, it would also be good if this refugee situation served to raise awareness in Japan of the way its government tends to behave in terms of international conventions. In most cases, be it a refugee convention, whaling treaty or anti-tobacco agreement, the aim of the Japanese government always seems to be to enjoy the benefits of being a signatory without actually fulfilling any of the comensurate responsibilities, often by relying on extremely rigid interpretations or technicalities. This would perhaps contradict the “exemplary member of the international community” image that the government likes to project, and uses as one of its justifications for passing the new security legislation.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    To be honest any comments here are moot. Japan hasn’t even accepted the proposal BY THE L.D.P. in 2008 to increase it’s intake of migrants to 10% of the population. The chances of it suddenly saying “Yes” to thousands of displaced refugees are about as close to zero as you can get.

  • Michele Marcolin

    What’s strange? Japan is a well-known xenophobic country with an inferiority complex. The only thing they are interested in is in having others recognize them as peer and high level culture, possibly higher than surrounding Asian countries. As for the rest they do not give a crap of what happens around the world, as long as people do not ask to work, a visa or menace to take over something from them. Said that, I believe their approach may be correct: you first protect yourself and your citizens and then think about those who do not contribute to your welfare. Not like European idiot governments, who, despite being into a crisis – both economical and social – keep on opening their borders, having their own citizens providing economically for that, while politicians and companies involved in immigration speculate on it. Refugee is a too general term… While normal people need to bust their a**es to get visa and job to get a simple – sometimes very sacrificed life – while refugees get the right to ‘demand’ what and even more than other can’t get despite having more rights…?

  • ChbiM

    Many of the Syrians I have met have been rather secular in orientation. I don’t think that coming from an Islamic background would be any obstacle to them settling in Japan, any more than coming from a Catholic background would be a problem for an Italian. The idea that everybody in the Middle East is very religiously committed is, I think, mistaken.

    There are some very well educated and skilled people trying to escape ISIS. Any country who hosted them would find them a benefit rather than a problem.

  • Kazuhiro Shino

    Japanese bureaucracy is adamantly xenophobic regardless immigration is concerned education of language is deliberately sabotaged early any Japanese are able to speak foreign languages Japanese bureaucracy is still remain the formation & doctrine as pre world war 2 which never welcome foreigners in Japanese establishment that’s the fact why Japan is still negotiating many issues which have raised over 40 years ago that’s the proof post world war 2 US occupation has not reformed bureaucracy since then many attempts but non has succeeded after all bureaucratic banality is one of the biggest hindrance of staled economy & social reform

  • ajaxJohnson

    Why would Japan want to self destruct like US and Europe?

  • Hanamanganda

    The European intake of refugees is a horrible mistake. Islam is going to ruin that continent. 10% of Germany’s youing men will be Muslim. The societal disruption will be terrible, and demographically the stage is set for Germany to not exist in its current form by the end of the 21st century, or soon.

    Japan must not open its borders.

  • ChbiM

    There’s a saying – “Don’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail”. It’s not reputed for balanced and impartial journalism.

  • bv

    Instead of debating taking in or not taking in millions of unsettled refugees displaced by Zionist intervention you should be using all your energy to demand an end to the wars. Assad has done nothing wrong, yet there is the West – once again – with their patented regime change – unsettling millions and creating a human crisis – and all you people can do is debate about what to do with them all. Listen to yourselves.

  • Revelation

    One never knows if there are also terrorists posing as migrants. Imagine having such scum covering more territory in various places across the world, and how much more of a danger that would present. For this reason alone, I can see why the Japanese government would not want to invite such people inside. Well, that reason and the indisputable fact that Japan wants to preserve a “pure blood” society, hah.

  • bv

    Ask yourself why Israel doesn’t volunteer to do their fair share. Do they deserve to be a pure Jewish state and preserve their own culture yet no one else? Tell Israel “You first”

  • greytreader .

    Why should political struggles of a civilization gone wrong punis the rest of the world with sain civilization?

  • Muqtadir Mohammad

    Because importing millions of people that will live on government handouts, increase crime as well as social and racial tensions (as is the case in Europe) sure is the answer to that “problem” of low fertility in Japan, right?

  • Tom

    Fun fact: Japanese people don’t even take kindly to ethnic Japanese who were born and raised outside Japan (and thus might be very disconnected from Japanese culture). While they may not have cults running around screaming “Death to ” like the KKK, or police officers gunning down unarmed minorities, they can be extremely racist, though it’s more a case of xenophobia rather than hating on someone’s skin colour or culture.

    It’s not surprising at all that they would refuse to take in any Syrians.

    Even if they did, I can’t see it ending well due to Japanese xenophobia. There would be a lot of social tension developing in a short time, potentially escalating into violence, because the Syrians would be thrown into a hostile land with no supporting community and zero opportunities for them to get ahead. It’d be much worse than in Europe or the Americas, where the Syrians would at least be able to connect with local Arab communities for support. The Syrians and the Japanese don’t even have a common language! Educated Syrians who have learned another language most likely learned English, which is far more useful in Europe and the Americas than it ever will be in Japan. Fat chance any of them speak Japanese, while most Japanese can’t speak English well if at all.

  • Tom

    Fun fact: Japanese people don’t even take kindly to ethnic Japanese who were born and raised outside Japan (and thus might be very disconnected from Japanese culture). While they may not have cults running around screaming “Death to ” like the KKK, or police officers gunning down unarmed minorities, they can be extremely racist, though it’s more a case of xenophobia rather than hating on someone’s skin colour or culture.

    It’s not surprising at all that they would refuse to take in any Syrians.

    Even if they did, I can’t see it ending well due to Japanese xenophobia. There would be a lot of social tension developing in a short time, potentially escalating into violence, because the Syrians would be thrown into a hostile land with no supporting community and zero opportunities for them to get ahead. It’d be much worse than in Europe or the Americas, where the Syrians would at least be able to connect with local Arab communities for support. The Syrians and the Japanese don’t even have a common language! Educated Syrians who have learned another language most likely learned English, which is far more useful in Europe and the Americas than it ever will be in Japan. Fat chance any of them speak Japanese, while most Japanese can’t speak English well if at all.