Several groups urge Abe to pledge to accept Syrian refugees

by

Staff Writer

Private organizations supporting refugees on Monday urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to express during his upcoming speech at the annual U.N. General Assembly session Japan’s pledge to accept Syrian asylum seekers.

A total of 14 human rights and refugee assistance organizations, including Amnesty International Japan, Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) and Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, petitioned the Abe government to open its doors to asylum seekers fleeing strife-riven Syria and become a key global player in resolving what is turning into the greatest postwar refugee crisis.

“In response to the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, the international community has shown an unprecedented commitment to offering assistance to the asylum seekers. We expect Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to demonstrate to the world Japan’s willingness to be part of that global effort,” Eri Ishikawa, secretary-general of the Japan Association for Refugees, told a news conference in Tokyo.

The petitioners did not specify the number of refugees they want Japan to take in. But Ishikawa said it should at least be “big enough to live up to Japan’s reputation as a developed country.”

Monday’s move came as Abe is in New York to attend the U.N. assembly meeting, where he is expected to pledge $810 million (¥97.2 billion) in aid for refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, triple the amount of Japan’s contribution last year, according to a report by NHK.

It follows last week’s media reports that Japan is eyeing accepting “dozens” of Syrian refugee students as part of its nonfinancial contribution to the world’s efforts to address the crisis.

Shogo Watanabe, who represents Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, charged the idea of taking in Syrian refugees under the category of exchange students is far from satisfactory, as it is extremely selective and even suggests Tokyo only wishes to accept individuals potentially beneficial to Japanese society.

“What is needed here is the willingness to take in Syrian asylum seekers across the board. That may require lots of willpower and commitment, but that’s how other countries are coping with the situation,” Watanabe said.

As of Monday, Japan had accepted only three Syrian refugees out of 63 applicants since the crisis began in 2011.

Statistics issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that Australia pledged to receive 5,600 through measures such as resettlement and humanitarian programs, France 1,000 and Germany 35,000 since 2013.

In response to the petition, Cabinet Secretariat official Mitsushi Uragami answered Japan will positively explore the possibility of accepting refugees, Ishikawa quoted him as saying.

Last Friday, the Foreign Ministry announced that Tokyo will offer ¥240 million ($2 million) in emergency grant aid to more than 1 million Syrian refugees and host communities in Lebanon, while pledging another ¥240 million for Serbia and Macedonia, two Balkan nations saddled with a sudden influx of refugees.

Such financial assistance is commendable, but Japan should go beyond that to provide refugees with actual security by taking them in, Ishikawa of JAR said.

Earlier this month, the Justice Ministry unveiled a batch of plans purportedly meant to revamp its notoriously conservative refugee recognition system, including factoring in “new forms of persecution” that have emerged over the past 60 years since the U.N. adopted the Refugee Convention in 1951. But the reform is widely seen by critics as unlikely to bring about a fundamental shift in Japan’s rigid criteria for recognizing refugees.