Some people call emergency evacuation centers in Japan “worse than refugee camps” because in most places people sleep on the floor of a school gym without partitions for privacy. Under such poor living conditions, evacuees may develop serious health problems, and the weak, including babies and the elderly, are the ones who suffer most. With Japan having been hit hard by a number of natural disasters recently, it is time to improve conditions in evacuation centers.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the Tohoku region in 2011, the government created disaster prevention guidelines asking municipalities to set up separate toilets and changing rooms for men and women in emergency shelters and to have female staff who can work more effectively with women and children. However, many shelters set up after recent torrential rains and typhoons failed to meet these standards.

This week, the government created an expert panel that will discuss ways to make the nation’s evacuation centers more women- and children-friendly, and will hammer out a proposal by the end of the current fiscal year. Given the pressing need to improve the quality of evacuation centers, the government should move faster.

In the United States and many countries in Europe, beds and tents are distributed to evacuees within three days after a disaster, and families are given tents that provide privacy. In Japan, it usually takes more than a week to distribute cardboard beds to emergency shelters.

Experts point out that such quick action is not due to cultural differences, but instead is the result of lessons learned during World War II. When London was bombed in 1940, city residents often sought shelter in subway stations. But after nearly half a year there, many of them died from deep-vein thrombosis, commonly known today as economy-class syndrome, while cases of pneumonia more than doubled from the previous year. A report by the medical journal Lancet led the government to distribute beds to 177,000 evacuees to protect their health. And since then it has been a common practice in the West to distribute beds and warm meals to shelters.

The Japanese government has also announced it would disburse about ¥710 million from reserves in the fiscal 2019 budget to send necessities to evacuation facilities. But it should also start stockpiling more relief supplies, such as cardboard beds, for future emergencies.

Improving the conditions of evacuation centers is important, but one should not dismiss the fact that a lack of flexibility on the part of local government employees is causing problems at some emergency shelters. For example, an evacuation center in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, received relief supplies such as milk and diapers but failed to distribute them to mothers in need because the women were not actually staying in the shelter.

Mothers with babies tend to stay in shelters only for a short time and return to their homes even before they’re fit to be inhabited because emergency centers are often not baby-friendly. As a result, the Cabinet Office had to issue a directive to flexibly distribute relief supplies to those who are not seeking shelter in evacuation centers.

In some 13 municipalities in Tokyo, evacuation centers exceeded their capacity and could not accommodate additional local residents when Typhoon Hagibis approached in October. Moreover, Taito Ward was criticized for turning away two homeless people because they did not have registered addresses in the ward.

The nation’s Disaster Relief Act states “the principle of rescuing people in present location,” which means people do not have to be registered in the municipality where they are present to receive public support during an emergency. They can be tourists who happen to be in the area. Local government officials should know that evacuation centers are open to all people who seek shelter. As Japan welcomes more foreign tourists in coming years, that principle needs to be remembered.

Sadako Ogata, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who passed away last month, won international accolades for her unprecedented on-the-ground approach to humanitarian crises. When Kurds in northern Iraq were fleeing following a failed revolt against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the UNHCR’s mandate was limited to protecting only those who had crossed the borders of their home countries, not internally displaced people. However, Ogata made an unprecedented move to call for a safe haven for Kurdish refugees within Iraq. Her decision saved many Kurdish lives.

Japan’s central and local governments should learn from Ogata’s flexibility when it comes to saving human lives. In times of crisis we should not be bound by red tape, and flexibility should be encouraged.

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