As world closes doors to refugee surge, Aceh aid expert urges Japan to open up, play lead role

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Staff Writer

The global refugee crisis is stoking anti-immigration sentiment in Europe and the United States, but Japan could take the initiative to become a leading voice to protect those who are displaced, an expert on assistance to such people in Asia has said.

“I’m not very confident that the West can play a lead in being that voice,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder of Geutanyoe Foundation, a nongovernmental organization based in Aceh, Indonesia.

“I think we need actors from our regions — from Asia — and I think Japan is the best candidate to be the leading voice in trying to champion peace,” Fan said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. Fan was visiting to discuss refugee issues with Japanese stakeholders.

Fan has worked for more than 16 years to support refugee and other displaced people in Asia and other parts of the world, particularly in Aceh, Myanmar, Haiti and Jordan. Having received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 2004, Fan, who concurrently works as a research associate at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, has served as an adviser for the United Nations, the World Bank and the Red Cross.

As Japan is a signatory of the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, “I think that it’s important for Japan to take the lead and to show that the asylum system can work, because the rest of Asia would be looking and trying to follow the model that Japan is setting,” she said.

Japan’s contribution to the ongoing refugee crisis has been questioned by human rights advocates, because the country remains reluctant to accept refugees. Only 0.4 percent, or 27 people out of 7,586 applicants, were granted refugee status in 2015.

Japan’s reluctance became official in September 2015 when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that, before accepting refugees or immigrants, Japan needs to take care of its own people, particularly women and the elderly, and have them play more active roles in society.

But Japan has also been among the major donors of humanitarian aid.

In 2015, Japan was the fourth-largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, behind the U.S., the U.K. and the EU. And in September, Abe pledged $2.8 billion to refugees and migrants overseas between 2016 and 2018 to promote their “self-reliance” and to spur the economic development of their host countries.

But human rights experts, including former UNHCR chief and new U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, have urged Japan to increase the number of refugees it accepts. In November 2015, Guterres said Japan needs to “progressively improve the asylum system … to make it more effective in the reception and in the recognition and integration of refugees in Japanese society.”

According to the UNHCR, 65.3 million people had been displaced by the end of 2015, the highest ever recorded.

While Fan appreciates Japan’s financial support for host countries including Jordan and Lebanon to help them provide education and the health care needed for the flood of Syrian asylum seekers, she said Japan can play a bigger role by becoming a model in building a community where people mutually support each other in difficult circumstances — like people in Japan have shown in their disaster recovery efforts.

She said Japan should not shy away from accepting refugees out of fear of the crises in Europe and other countries where discord between local citizens and refugees has triggered violent incidents and xenophobia.

“There has been a lot of media focus on the situation of Europe. But the real crisis is in Syria,” she said. “The real crisis is for millions of Syrians who have been facing years of war right now, and have no way to survive inside Syria.

“I think you won’t solve the problem just by increasing the numbers that you take in. You have to look at solving the global problem. Japan should play a very active role on all the different levels,” Fan said, adding that actions from the private sector are the key.

“Maybe different organizations who are here could propose to the government and try — test out their pilot project, for example — to see if you can have a better integration,” she said. “Then from there, you can actually weigh the risk and say, ‘OK, if that’s a success, maybe it’s not a bad idea.'”

One good example of a successful private sector campaign, she said, is the refugee internship program offered by Uniqlo.

Fast Retailing Co., the operator of the multinational clothing chain, was the first Asian firm to sign a global partnership with UNHCR in 2011 and has taken in refugees in Japan, offering job training. Some refugees are promoted to full-time staff after completing their training.

“I think Uniqlo’s approach is really good, because you are giving skills to the refugees,” Fan said. “I don’t think any refugees want to be dependent on aid. They don’t just want handouts. They want to have opportunities. They want to have the skills to start their new lives.”

Asked if there is a risk of Japanese jobs being taken over by refugees, Fan said that should not be a reason for Japan to reject refugees.

“(Refugees are) people from conflict areas who have had schools burned down, their villages burned down, or maybe have had no education, have been struggling for years to survive and (they are) not in a situation to compete at all with Japanese citizens,” she said.

“Don’t see them as coming in trying to looking for work. See them as coming in looking for protection and looking for a way to survive,” Fan said.

“There are a lot of things that the international community hasn’t got right when it comes to looking at stabilization and peace-building and state-building. At the larger global level, there is a lot of rethinking that needs to be done,” she said. “Japan should be one of the key actors in that process to really try to support the rethinking of the architecture globally.”