Children wrapped in emergency blankets stand on a beach after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Long lines of refugees wait to enter a camp in Macedonia. Trains packed with hundreds of refugees arrive at the Munich railway station. Such images of desperate Syrians fleeing their war-torn country were seared into many people’s minds in 2015.
More than 4.3 million Syrians have left their home country on a journey for survival and, including uprooted people inside Syria, more than half of the 22 million Syrian population have been displaced and need humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Though major powers involved and the U.N. are working on a peace process for Syria, including a cease-fire between the Syrian government and opposition, experts believe the refugee crisis is likely to continue in 2016 with no guarantee of ending the conflict. What can the international community, including Japan, do to solve the crisis and alleviate the plight of refugees?
Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board of the Japan Association for Refugees, a Tokyo-based nongovernment organization that supports refugees arriving in Japan, says in addition to the ongoing efforts by European countries to accept Syrian refugees, there are many things that Japan can do.
“Financial contribution is one important aspect and working to end the civil war in other nations is another way for Japan to contribute. But I think accepting Syrian refugees in Japan is equally important,” said Ishikawa, whose association has supported 4,900 refugee cases in Japan since its establishment in 1999.
Infrastructure in many towns and cities in Syria has been crippled or destroyed by bombings, triggering the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Ishikawa believes even if the parties concerned could agree to a cease-fire, it is expected to take at least three to five years to rebuild to enable people to return to the country.
“Offering a safe and peaceful place for those people to stay during that period is a huge contribution Japan could offer as a member of the international community,” she said.
But Japan is notorious for not granting people refugee status. According to the Justice Ministry, Japan accepted only 11 asylum seekers out of a record 5,000 applicants in 2014, and the number of applicants has reached 6,160 as of October in 2015.
“People often argue that some asylum seekers abuse the system placed under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as they don’t fall under the category of refugees. But from our experience of handling about 600 cases per year, more people than 11 surely should have been granted refugee status,” she said.
According to the Justice Ministry, as many as 429 Syrians were staying in Japan as of June 2015. As of July, a total of 63 Syrians requested to be recognized as refugees, but Japan has accepted only three of them so far.
But that does not mean that Syrians have not been allowed to stay in Japan. Instead of recognizing them as refugees, many of them have been given special permission to stay in Japan on humanitarian grounds. Without refugee status, however, they are not eligible for various government settlement support programs to be able to live in Japan such as Japanese language lessons and training to help them get a job. It is also difficult to invite family members to join them in Japan.
Ishikawa said being too rigid in recognizing Syrian people as refugees will foster a negative image of Japan in the international community and that could offset the positive impact of financial contributions and diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria. As an example, she cited some foreign media reports that criticized Japan as “open wallet, closed doors,” following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s news conference in New York on Sept. 29.
Abe told the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 29 that Japan would provide a total of $1.5 billion in emergency aid for refugees and for stabilization of communities facing upheaval. But when asked about accepting refugees in Japan at the news conference, he said the country must first attend to its own demographic challenges — a falling birthrate and aging population.
“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) birthrate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants,” Abe said, according to the official translation of his comments.
Many asylum seekers arriving in Japan are impressed by the safety of the country, but their first needs — housing, clothing and food — remain hard to get. Even if they had ¥100,000 or ¥200,000 when they arrive in Japan, for example, just spending a night at a hostel will cost at least ¥3,000 or so, and without getting a proper job, the money will soon run out, Ishikawa said.
Under such circumstances, asylum seekers are vulnerable and women especially could become targets of sexual abuse, Ishikawa said.
Ishikawa says it is not just the government’s job to accept these people, but Japanese society as a whole needs to think about this issue and discuss it more openly.
“The government may play a key role in the early stages of their settlement in this country, but in the long run, it will be local communities that need to accept them,” she said. “They may live next to your house. Their children may go to the same nursery school as your children. They may sit next to you while waiting to see the doctor. Keeping these possibilities in mind, we all have to think about how our society can embrace refugees.”
Some people may confuse the refugees with potential terrorists, but Ishikawa said the refugees are the people whose lives have been threatened and who have lost their homes due to the civil war or indiscriminate attacks by terrorists.
“Japanese people must first understand that the refugees are victims of terrorist attacks and think about how to integrate them into our society,” she said.