NEW YORK - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday that Japan needs to attend to its own demographic challenges posed by its falling birthrate and aging population before opening its doors to refugees.
Abe announced at the U.N. General Assembly that Japan is ramping up assistance in response to the exodus of refugees to Europe from the Middle East and Africa.
He said Japan will provide $1.5 billion in emergency aid for refugees and for stabilization of communities facing upheaval.
But speaking to reporters later Tuesday he poured cold water on the idea of Japan opening its doors to those fleeing.
He said Japan first needed to attend to domestic challenges, which he proposes to tackle under a revamped economic policy that aims to boost GDP to a record postwar level, while strengthening the social security system to support families.
“As an issue of demography, I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, by elderly people and we must raise (the) birthrate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants,” Abe told a news conference, according to the official translation of his comments.
He added that Japan would “discharge our own responsibility” in addressing the refugee crisis, which he described as helping to improve conditions that cause the exodus.
Abe earlier told the world body that Japan would provide $810 million this year for emergency assistance of refugees and internally displaced persons from Syria and Iraq, triple what it gave last year. Abe said Japan is also preparing about $750 million for stabilization efforts in the Middle East and Africa.
Japan prides itself on being a good global citizen. It is one of the largest aid donors in the world. Last year Japan gave $181.6 million to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, making it second only to the United States in generosity.
But it has offered very few if any resettlement places for refugees from the civil war in Syria.
Nonetheless, Eri Ishikawa, secretary-general of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), said she takes a positive view of Abe’s speech, noting it was “praiseworthy” that he expressed Japan’s explicit commitment to helping the world combat the refugee crisis, albeit through financial measures.
JAR was one of the 14 private organizations that submitted a petition to the Abe government Monday calling on the leader to declare Japan’s pledge to accept Syrian refugees during his speech at the U.N. assembly.
Abe’s failure to demonstrate such a pledge is “disappointing,” but still, the fact he chose the refugee assistance as the first topic of his speech is “reassuring,” she said.
“We believe financial assistance is not the end of Japan’s contribution. There are several possible steps lying ahead, including accepting the refugees,” Ishikawa said.
According to Justice Ministry data, the country accepted just 11 asylum seekers out of a record 5,000 applications last year, although Japanese officials say most of the asylum applicants were from other Asian countries and were already living in Japan.
Some argue that increased immigration could help arrest a shrinking population, which is currently at 126 million. Abe says he is determined to ensure that in 50 years the Japanese population will have stabilized at 100 million.
Others also say that Abe may have missed an excellent opportunity to tout Japan’s role as a “proactive contributor to peace,” a policy that has been panned by critics as ringing hollow.
“Japan’s offer … smacks as self-serving in a humanitarian crisis,” James Simpson, a Tokyo-based defense analyst and contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly, wrote in an email.
But, according to Simpson, Abe has already irreparably damaged his relationship with his critics, meaning there would be little to gain politically in letting in more refugees and much to lose with conservatives, who are skeptical of immigration.
“Abe could use (the refugee crisis) to partly recover his reputation among his critics by showing his willingness to work with in a more liberal nonmilitary humanitarian agenda, but without the political benefit to him, I doubt he will take his foot off the door,” Simpson said.
Late last month, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata slammed the Abe administration in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, saying that Japan accepting more refugees is “one part of ‘proactive pacifism.’ ”
In his speech, Abe also expressed Japan’s keen desire and readiness to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, saying his country would “carry out its responsibilities in making still greater contributions toward world peace and prosperity.”
Promoting his policy of proactive contributions to peace based on the principle of international cooperation in pressing areas such as the refugee crisis and the fight against terrorism, Abe appears poised to rally increased support for Japan’s bid for permanent membership on the Security Council, the top decision-making body of the United Nations.
Referring to the aid to the Middle East and Africa, he said: “Each of these assistance measures is an emergency countermeasure that Japan is able to undertake. But at the same time, our unchanging principle is at all times to endeavor to return to the root of the problem and improve the situation.”
According to the prime minister, such efforts include improvement of the water supply and sewage systems in Iraq, a vital element in bringing stability to the Iraqi people’s daily lives.
Japan also values the provision of education and health care and aims to empower women of all ages as part of efforts to promote “human security,” he said.
“Japan has a history of supporting nation-building in a variety of places. We have experience working to foster human resources, offering our utmost in humanitarian assistance and upholding women’s rights,” he said. “Now more than ever, Japan wishes to offer that wealth of experience, unstintingly.”
Citing the passage of national security laws through the Diet in July, Abe also said the Self-Defense Forces are now able to make broader contribution to U.N. peacekeeping operations.
“Holding aloft the flag of ‘proactive contributor to peace based on the principle of international cooperation,’ Japan is determined to undertake Security Council reform in order to transform the United Nations into a body appropriate for the 21st century,” he said, “and then, as a permanent member of the Security Council, carry out its responsibilities in making still greater contributions toward world peace and prosperity.”