Beginning in 2010, Japan will inaugurate a three-year pilot program to accept 30 refugees a year from camps nestled along the remote border between Thailand and Burma.

This is a so-called third-country resettlement program for displaced people living in foreign refugee camps who have no chance or desire for repatriation to their home country.

Japan is the first Asian country to accept “resettlement refugees” in a region that produces many, and there are high hopes that the program will expand to the point where it can make a meaningful difference. The stakes are therefore high for the success of this pilot program.

The 100,000 or so refugees from Burma who now live in camps in western Thailand fled from a brutal and incompetent military junta that has misruled their homeland (which it calls Myanmar) since seizing power in 1988. Many of those refugees are desperate to move on and away, and some have known no other life.

There is, though, lots of competition from other displaced people around the world to be accepted by one of the 16 nations that currently receive third-country refugees for resettlement.

But certainly, Japan’s declared intention to accept a total of just 90 refugees over three years is a drop in the bucket compared to the need in the Thai camps. And, on a recent visit to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand where many exiles from Burma live, virtually everyone involved I spoke to about this program criticized it for being an insignificant gesture that reflects badly on the Japanese government.

Indeed, Iceland — with a population of only 300,000, compared to Japan’s 127 million — accepts 30 Palestinian refugees a year. And given the massive need for much larger-scale resettlement — especially for children who have been raised in the Thai camps — it is understandable that Burmese refugees want the Japanese government to act with greater urgency.

But set against Japan’s deeply lackluster record, the government’s intention to accept 90 refugees from Burma between 2010 and 2012 is a major breakthrough. The country’s Justice Ministry issued only 30 refugee visas to asylum seekers in the past four years, 2005-08; and since becoming a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, Japan has accepted only 508 refugees — including a mere 49 through all of the 1990s.

A Jan. 6 editorial this year in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper pointed out the contributions refugees make to their adopted countries, and urged the government to open the doors wider.

“We should welcome refugees from abroad as our new neighbors,” it said. “We hope this will be the first small step on the way toward Japan’s growth into an open society.”

In fact, this is not the first time Japan has accepted refugees for resettlement. Back in the late 1970s, under pressure from the United States in the post-Vietnam War era, the Japanese government accepted nearly 12,000 Indochinese refugees. Initially, the government tried to disperse them widely around the country, but it then found that urban areas provided the best environment for their integration. Since then, some have moved to other countries, but those who stayed prove that refugees pose little risk to Japanese society and are reliable taxpayers with decent jobs, many in second-hand goods, trading and restaurant businesses.

Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), a quasi-government organization sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, was established to help facilitate integration of the Indochinese refugees and their families, to distribute government assistance, to provide language and culture classes, and vocational counseling. In general, the program was a success and wrapped up its activities in 2005. Since then RHQ has provided support for recently recognized convention refugees, including language programs and financial assistance.

When this writer visited a class in Tokyo, all the students were from Burma, so encouraging optimism that the new resettlement refugees from there should also fit well into existing programs.

To understand how and why Japan changed its policy on resettlement refugees, I spoke with Saburo Takizawa, a professor at the United Nations University in Tokyo, and the recently retired U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Japan who previously worked for three decades at U.N. organizations in Beirut and in Vienna.

Takizawa explained that he came here with three missions: To change Japan’s policy on resettlement; to reverse the downward trend in Japan’s contributions to the UNHCR; and to promote UNHCR activities in Japan regarding refugees and asylum seekers. He took on this assignment, he said, because he knew Japan’s shirking on refugees was a mistaken policy. Asia produces many refugees, and in his view it is important that now Asia, led by Japan, is beginning to look after its own.

Reflecting on his tenure, Takizawa now modestly says, “The glass is half full.”

In his view, the UNHCR was not as effective an advocate for refugees in Japan as it could be because it engaged in public confrontations with the Justice Ministry. Having formerly served in the ministry’s Immigration Bureau, Takizawa sought a quiet dialogue with his former colleagues. He, too, wanted Japan to accept more refugees — but decided on a change in tactics.

Fortuitously, one of his former colleagues, Toshio Inami, was director of the Immigration Bureau in 2007 when Takizawa assumed his UNHCR post. At the time, Takizawa commissioned a study about the experience of the Indochinese refugees, hoping to show the government that refugees are law- abiding and self-sufficient, making contributions rather than problems.

Even before the study was completed, though, Takizawa’s efforts were bearing fruit with the establishment of a clandestine study group. They kept their deliberations secret to avoid stirring political opposition over this controversial issue until they had prepared an acceptable proposal and drummed up political support.

In addition, Inami had only a year until retirement, so he had little or nothing to lose by trying to push through what constitutes a major shift in government policy. And, like Takizawa, he regarded this as a chance to leave a positive legacy, both at home and abroad.

Observers often comment on the slow pace of decision-making in policy- gridlocked Japan, but the tectonic shift in resettlement policy occurred rapidly. By the end of 2007, then Minister of Justice Kunio Hatoyama — whose wife is Australian — was briefed about the plan to establish a pilot resettlement project and gave it the green light.

Then, after extensive debate, the Cabinet signed off on the small pilot program.

Takizawa counters critics who deride the size of the pilot program, saying: “The numbers are not important. What is important is that the government adopted a pro-resettlement policy. Knowing how bureaucracies work, and given all the hours of meetings spent establishing the pilot project, this program will continue and the numbers will increase.”

In Takizawa’s view, the low number of refugees in Japan reflects the low number of applications by asylum seekers. As he has pointed out, the Justice Ministry’s approval rate on asylum applications has remained stable at around 6 to 8 percent — so the key to increasing the number of refugees is to make Japan a more attractive destination for asylum seekers, so that more apply.

Takizawa credits Inami with playing a decisive role in the sudden spike in humanitarian visas granted, since they are issued at the discretion of the director of the Immigration Bureau. By issuing so many more of these visas — up from 80 in 2007, to 360 in 2008 — Takizawa believes the government is sending a positive message to would-be asylum seekers.

However, critics maintain that humanitarian visas are no substitute for refugee status, as they confer less security and support and mask an evasion of responsibilities both to the international community and the asylum seekers themselves. Certainly they have a point, and it is the job of advocates to press for further reforms. But it is also important to recognize what has been accomplished against very steep odds, as the closed door has opened a crack.

The outcomes may not be ideal, but the Burmese I meet who have received humanitarian visas express relief and feel fortunate — while others envy their good luck.

For people who have lived on the margins, endured poverty, anxiety and all the setbacks and challenges of the disenfranchised, a chance for a new life is greatly valued, even if it is a pragmatic compromise. According to advocates, however, granting more convention refugee visas remains key — a policy they say will win Japan more international stature, better serve asylum seekers and provide them with travel documents so they can relocate wherever they wish.

Takizawa maintains that 2008 was a turning point, when Japan abandoned the “vicious cycle” of keeping the door tightly shut, thus discouraging asylum seekers, in favor of what he terms a “virtuous cycle” of increasing the protection rate by providing more humanitarian visas and announcing the resettlement plan. These, he believes, are changes that will attract more asylum seekers and so lead to more refugees being accepted.

In order to attract more refugees, he says, it is also important to develop refugee communities that can assist newcomers in adjusting to life in Japan.

In addition, the virtuous cycle also depends on the pilot program being seen to be a success in order to pave the way for continued government, community and employer support. To improve the odds, the resettlement refugees will be carefully vetted and the most promising candidates included. Takizawa believes that some of those in need of medical care will also be included.

The Justice Ministry’s image has improved dramatically as the media reports on these positive developments in refugee policy. Previously, it was routinely hammered by international organizations and domestic NGOs for its draconian and legalistic stance. Now, though, it sees the value of promoting reform.

Certainly when Sadako Ogata, former head of the UNHCR and current director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), told The Japan Times in June 2007 that the Justice Ministry lacked a humanitarian sensibility, her criticism was taken to heart by some in the ministry who favored reform. Coming from such a respected figure, her remark proved useful in convincing others that it was time to change and repair the ministry’s battered reputation.

Positive PR about recent initiatives encourages usually risk-averse, precedent- tied bureaucrats to reconsider existing practices and create a more positive environment for policy reform. Even in faceless bureaucracies, people make a difference, and Inami and Takizawa deserve kudos for prodding and persuading colleagues to embrace reforms.

Whether this means that the pilot program can be translated into the large-scale program that is desperately needed, however, remains uncertain. Consequently, their legacy — and the lives of refugees languishing in the Thai border camps — hangs in the balance.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies, Temple University Japan Campus.

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