Japan is notorious for accepting very few refugees, despite making a significant financial contribution to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
But the visiting head of the U.N. organization said Tuesday that Japan is making steady progress in improving the situation facing asylum seekers here.
“Japan is not a country with many refugees . . . but the asylum system is moving in the right direction,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters during his three-day visit to Tokyo.
After arriving Monday, Guterres met with government officials, including Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, and left the country Wednesday morning.
Japan was the UNHCR’s third-largest donor country in 2006, with a $75 million (¥8.1 billion) contribution, after being the second-largest donor for eight years through 2005.
However, the number of people granted refugee status in Japan remains small. In 2006, the government recognized only 34 people as refugees, compared with 23,296 in the U.S. and 6,330 in Britain.
Since assuming the top position at the UNHCR in 2005, Guterres, 58, said he has witnessed some improvements in Japan. These include the introduction of an appeal system to review cases of people whose applications for refugee status have been turned down, and the move by authorities to grant protection for people whose applications have been rejected but are allowed to stay for humanitarian reasons.
Above all, the most encouraging development for Guterres was that Japan has begun discussing the possible introduction of the third-country resettlement program, which means accepting refugees who sought asylum in other countries.
The UNHCR views resettlement in a third country as an important tool of protection and a durable solution for refugees, especially when voluntary repatriation to their home countries and local integration are difficult.
In September, the government set up a working group involving officials of the Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry and other bodies, and began studying the program.
The U.S., Canada and Australia were among the first countries that began offering third-country resettlement opportunities, but although countries in South America, including Brazil and Argentina, recently introduced such a system, no Asian country has done so.
Guterres said he felt there is political will from the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to introduce the system because they are making a serious analysis of conditions to bring it about.
“We would very much appreciate that (if Japan becomes) the first Asian country to install the program,” Guterres said. But at the same time, the former Portuguese prime minister said the UNHCR does not want Japan to rush, nor is it necessary for Japan to accept a great number of refugees from the beginning, because the U.N. organization wants a system that really works to help asylum seekers.
People’s awareness about refugees in Japan is relatively low due in part to its geographical location, but Guterres said he was encouraged by growing interest among young people.