When looking for solutions to the global refugee crisis, Japan is often identified as a country that could do more. It contributes generously to the United Nations refugee agency but does very little in terms of recognizing asylum seekers in Japan or in resettling refugees stranded, often in terrible conditions, in Thailand, Lebanon, Kenya, Pakistan and elsewhere.
On a recent visit to Tokyo I raised this issue in meetings with members of both houses of parliament from the ruling coalition. We discussed resettlement. In each meeting, the most awkward moment came when I presented the politician with a list of countries that have resettled refugees, and how many they have accepted. The politician scanned the list, saw that other advanced economies had resettled many thousands of refugees, and noted that Japan’s total was less than 20 per year.
The current government, like its predecessors, repeats the stance that Japan is not an “immigration country.” But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a country of asylum, as it has ratified the United Nations Refugee Convention.
Recently, there have been signs of change. The current, tiny resettlement program was only launched in 2010 and got renewed in 2014. All the refugees so far have been from Burma, resettled from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. During Japan’s G7 chairmanship last year, under pressure from other economic powers, Japan created a new program to allow Syrian students to come to the country. The program, which is also tiny – just 30 students and their immediate family members every year - benefits the fortunate few who qualify for admission to Japanese academic institutions, but falls short of a resettlement program to protect the most vulnerable refugees or to provide them a permanent home.
Japan should continue on this positive path. Currently, Japan demands that refugees be self-sufficient in a short space of time, yet given the tiny numbers involved, the government could choose to accept more vulnerable refugees such as those with disabilities whose needs Japan is especially well-suited to meet.
Longer term, Japan needs to decide which nationalities other than Burmese it will resettle, and how many it will admit. The politicians I spoke with support more resettlement and think over 100 refugees a year may be possible. This modest immediate step towards a more ambitious goal, if realized, combined with a focus on more vulnerable refugees, would send a signal that progress is possible.