Suggesting that even limited progress would be amenable, the head of the Tokyo office of the top U.N. body on refugees asked the Japanese public Tuesday for progress toward a better understanding of what accepting more refugees and displaced people would mean.
“Living and working with refugees is not just for the government,” said Dirk Hebecker, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ Tokyo office, speaking at a symposium in the capital marking World Refugee Day.
Hebecker said a stronger grasp by the public of how it could live and work together with refugees was needed in order to make it easier for the government to accept a larger number of applicants.
He suggested that even small steps in this direction would be enough to enhance Japanese assistance to refugees — at least for the time being.
“We’re not expecting Japan to welcome 10 million refugees” at once, he said.
If the country’s population, which is overwhelmingly homogeneous, reaches a point where it is ready to accept more refugees, it would be possible for the government “to expand the resettlement program, which has been running for a number of years,” Hebecker said.
The UNHCR’s Tokyo office held the event, titled “From Aleppo to New York and Tokyo,” as part of a push to lay the groundwork for Japan’s acceptance of more refugees.
It’s a day to “show sympathy and solidarity in words and actions — make a little space in our hearts for over 65 million people who depend on the international community,” Hebecker told the event attended by more than 300 people at the United Nations University in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.
A day earlier, the Office of the UNHCR announced that the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflicts or persecution in places like Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan by the end of 2016 had reached a staggering 65.6 million worldwide. The figure was 6 million more than at the end of 2014.
Of the 65.6 million, 22.5 million were refugees, 40.3 million were internally displaced and 2.8 million were asylum-seekers, it said.
The Justice Ministry announced in February that a record 10,901 foreign nationals had applied for refugee status in Japan last year, up 44 percent from the previous year. Despite the surge in applications, a mere 28 refugees were accepted in 2016, just one more than the previous year.
Other organizations have also helped to lay the groundwork for more acceptance in Japan of refugees. On Saturday, the nongovernment organization World Vision Japan held a symposium with Refugee Assistance Headquarters at its headquarters in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward, where refugees living in the country recounted their experiences.
“As a refugee, I believe that I was very lucky to be accepted to Japan, and with Japanese people helping me out,” a woman in her late 20s, who asked not to be named, said at the event. The woman was a political refugee who arrived to Japan from Myanmar in 2007 and is currently employed as sales clerk at a Uniqlo apparel shop in Tokyo.
Fast Retailing Co., the operator of the Uniqlo chain, has been hiring refugees since 2011. As of May 2017, a total of 45 worked for the company, including 39 in Japan, three in Germany and three in the United Kingdom.
The woman from Myanmar urged a better understanding of the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences of refugees and displaced people.
“The number of refugees is increasing rapidly around the globe. Some don’t like to be called a refugee, while there are others who are not even aware that they are refugees,” she said.
“Even if just a little, I want people to have a better understanding of refugees,” she said.
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