NEW YORK – UNICEF’s head has urged Japan and other nations to be more receptive to refugees and migrants, saying some countries can benefit from helping accommodate the surging number of people displaced by conflicts worldwide.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a recent interview that the rising number of displaced people is projected to grow even more, given the expected impact of global warming.
To meet that challenge, “every nation should review its own, not only laws, but customs to open up more to what is a global phenomenon and especially those who in so many ways like Japan are known to be very good global citizens,” Lake said.
A number of European countries have been more receptive to immigrants, Lake said, because “many studies show that migrants contribute more than they take economically to societies, especially those that have aging populations.”
More than a quarter of graying Japan’s population is 65 or older, and the government is scrambling to arrest the country’s declining birthrate.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 29 that Japan will provide a total of $1.5 billion in emergency aid for refugees and for stabilization of communities facing upheaval.
But speaking to reporters later the same day, he poured cold water on the idea of Japan opening its doors to those fleeing, saying the country must first attend to its own demographic challenges — its falling birthrate and aging population.
“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.
According to Justice Ministry data, the country accepted just 11 asylum seekers out of a record 5,000 applicants last year, although officials say most of the asylum applicants were from other Asian countries and were already living in Japan.
The UNICEF chief also expressed concern about the unaccompanied minors fleeing Syria to Europe in what he calls a “river of misery.” Often on the move, they are notoriously difficult to track. In Macedonia, Lake explained, just under 4,000 such children had been registered since June, though the numbers are believed to be much greater.
“We can know for certainty that they are scared . . . very uncertain of what the future holds for them and in great need of help,” he said, noting that as winter approaches the conditions will only worsen.
There are also the added dangers posed by people-traffickers waiting at bus and train stations and other transit points, leaving minors even more vulnerable.
Besides calling on leaders to do more for humanitarian reasons, he said “dealing with the crisis in Syria” is critical.
He stressed that many families were leaving their homes and risking their lives to get to Europe because they “don’t see a future for their children in Syria or the surrounding countries.”
The vulnerable children are not only Syrian, but others who are escaping life-threatening situations in such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria, he said.
UNICEF aims to offer such children psychosocial support, chances to attend school and safe spaces where they can experience a more normal life, he said.
Japan was overall the No. 3 donor to UNICEF in 2014 after the United States and Britain, Lake pointed out, donating $296 million. Tokyo has contributed $12.2 million this year that has been earmarked for Syrian children.
But more can be done, he said.
Of the $1.5 billion in emergency aid Abe has promised this year, $810 million will be spent on emergency assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons from Syria and Iraq — triple what it gave last year — and about $750 million on stabilization efforts in the Middle East and Africa.