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Welcoming refugees to fill labor shortages

by Michael Lindenbauer

Special To The Japan Times

Not long ago I read an article in a Canadian paper titled “why not use refugees to solve our temporary foreign workers problem”? In a nutshell, the authors were asking why not allow for more refugee (resettlement) admission with a view to addressing at least some of Canada’s labor market constraints?

They argued that by providing labor employment opportunities to refugees, Canada could “contribute to the nation-building agenda, fulfill humanitarian commitments and respond to labor market needs.” Could this line of thought also be entertained in Japan?

There is a growing recognition of Japan’s demographic problem (and that this problem cannot be addressed solely by encouraging a higher birthrate). There also seems to be recognition that to address the problem of labor market shortages (in part with a view to the upcoming 2020 Olympic games), some level of immigration may be needed.

While the debate continues on how best to go about this, it may be useful to recall that by the end of 2013, according to recently published data by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), there were more than 50 million people around the globe who had been forced to leave their homes, mainly due to persecution, war and human rights violations. Some 33 million of them were displaced within their own countries, including about 6.5 million Syrians.

Some 14 million of the 50 million displaced persons worldwide are refugees forced to leave their countries to seek asylum abroad. A majority live under most difficult conditions in countries struggling to support them.

Lebanon, for example, is a country with some 4 million inhabitants where UNHCR has registered more than 1 million refugees. Neighboring Jordan has received an almost equally high number of refugees and the situation in both countries is getting increasingly tight!

And these refugees all come with different backgrounds and skills. They are academics, technicians, farmers, nurses, students, linguists, manual laborers, taxi drivers, to just highlight a few of their profiles. They are people like you and me — children too — who were “at the wrong place at the wrong time,” and often lost almost everything. They still have their skills and would like nothing more than to use these skills again to enable them to find a way back to a (more) normal life.

So why not allow these refugees to move on and work instead of having them sit in a refugee camp? Why not provide refugees with employment opportunities along the lines of what Japan wishes to offer to other labor migrants? In principle there is nothing that speaks against being a protected refugee and a migrant worker. Such an option would be effective in helping refugees realize the right to work, regain dignity and enable them to contribute to society and it would help to tackle labor shortages!

To go back to the punch line of the article in the Canadian paper: Why not do both, cater to economic needs and meet international humanitarian commitments? Given Japan’s strong support for humanitarian issues and international solidarity, such an approach appears to be worth considering. And as a concrete first step, why not start by considering the admission of some Syrian refugees from Jordan and Lebanon?

UNHCR has called on states to provide resettlement, humanitarian and other forms of admission, including by providing student and employment visas, for 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016, mainly to alleviate the burden of the countries neighboring Syria.

A number of governments have reacted favorably so far to UNHCR’s request and opened their doors. Japan should join this noble cause.

Michael Lindenbauer is the UNHCR representative in Japan.