YOKKAICHI, MIE PREF. – The decision by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week to accept 150 Syrians over the next five years as exchange students was described Monday by nongovernmental organizations involved with Syria as just one step toward Japan meeting its international responsibility to address the refugee crisis.
But they added that admitting the Syrians not as legal refugees but as students is cause for concern.
“Once they finish their studies here in Japan, their student visas expire and they might be forced to return to Syria. We will have discussions with the Japanese government about what to do. But the government also needs to work to ensure that once they graduate they will have the freedom to choose whether they want to go back to their country or, if the situation in Syria is still bad, to remain in Japan,” said Hiroaki Ishii, executive director of the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees.
Ishii’s comments came during a discussion on Syrian refugees at the opening of the two-day Citizens’ Ise Shima Summit, a gathering of Japanese and international NGOs and NPOs taking place in advance of the Group of Seven summit later this week.
Less than a decade ago, Syrians had a relatively high quality of life. It was a nation that, while ancient, had the kind of modern amenities taken for granted in wealthy countries.
“Syria was a country of stylish cafes, shopping malls with ice skating rinks, cheap vegetables in the markets, and a culture where strangers spoke easily to each other on the street,” said Takayuki Nakano, a representative of the Yokohama-based NGO Sadaqa for Syria who lived near the city of Aleppo between 2008 and 2010.
Participants noted that since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, more than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives, and more than 1 million have been injured. In addition, 4.8 million Syrian refugees have fled abroad, while another 6.6 million are internally displaced. Half of its citizens have lost their homes.
The Syrian crisis is expected to be one of the issues that the leaders of Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and the European Union will discuss when they gather in Mie Prefecture.
In a letter to Deputy Foreign Minister Yasumasa Nagamine at the beginning of March, more than 80 Japan-based NGOs, NPOs and individuals involved in human rights and conflict resolution called for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his role as chair of the G-7 Ise-Shima summit, to assume leadership of the Syrian peace process.
“On Jan. 1, Japan became a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This brings increasing international responsibility, and there are high expectations for Japan’s new role,” the letter says.
“Japan is highly trusted by Syrians and civil society in the Middle East, and in regards to peace in Syria, Japan is one of the few countries in the G-7 that does not have a special stake in the conflict. The summit is a unique opportunity for Japan as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council to show the world its leadership in the process leading to peace in Syria.”
Japanese and international human rights NGOs called on the government to do three things.
First, to establish a dialogue among victims of the conflict to discuss the future of their country. Second, to set up a forum between Syrians and Japanese experts to discuss ways to end the conflict and rebuild. And third, to enhance dialogue between the Japanese government and civil society on the conflict.