United Nations urges Japan to accept refugees

Syrian refugees at Bashabsheh camp in Jordan...epa03308933 A Syrian refugee who fled the violence in his county flashes the victory sign at Bashabsheh refugee camp, at Jordan-Syria Border, Ramtha City, 90Km North of Amman, Jordan, 17 July 2012. Jordan on 10 July said it had begun construction of the countrys first Syrian refugee camp, as part of efforts to cope with a refugee influx that has reached as high as 1,000 people per day. The camp, designed to host up to 5,000 refugees, will be jointly funded by the UN and the JHCO and completed by the end of the week, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  EPA/JAMAL NASRALLAH

The United Nations is putting pressure on Japan to accept more refugees, especially people displaced by the war in Syria. Prime Minister Abe has said Japan should deal with its own problems before taking in newcomers.

This week, the head of the UN body responsible for refugees, Antonio Guterres, was in Tokyo. He was quoted by Reuters as saying he would like the Japanese government to increase the number of people resettled in Japan and be especially open to the the humanitarian admissions of Syrians.

There was no direct and official response from the government, although Prime Minister Abe has so far pushed aside the issue of accepting refugees, preferring to respond to the crisis by offering money.

He recently told the United Nations that Japan would offer some $1.6 billion to assist Syrians and Iraqis displaced by conflict and for building peace across the Middle East and Africa.

Another influential person calling for more refugees to be accepted is Sadako Ogata, 88, who used to be the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

She said it was nonsense to suggest Japan does not have the resources to accept refugees and it is not doing enough on the humanitarian front, despite its desire for a bigger global political role.

The interview with Lady Ogata was a scoop for Reuters’ Tokyo team Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki who point out that Japan accepted less than a dozen asylum seekers last year, despite five thousand applicants.

Japan’s attitude towards immigration puzzles many foreigners, particularly Americans, who are used to living in a multicultural society drawn from immigrants from all over the world.

Farah Stockman, writing in the Boston Globe, says that although most Americans consider the influx of talented, energetic immigrants to have benefitted their economy, Japan thinks the opposite way. Her report focusses on members of the Nikkei community in Japan; Japanese-Brazilians, whose families emigrated to South America at the turn of the 20th century and who have now returned.

Their situation is difficult, as I witnessed when I made a programme about them for the BBC and found a family of six people sleeping on the floor of a tiny flat in Hamamatsu.

A poster called Sensato made an interesting comment on the Japan Today website: “In the late 1800s into the early 1900s the Japanese government actively encouraged massive emigration of Japanese people to North/South America and elsewhere in Asia as a means of alleviating poverty in Japan’s rural areas (not to mention the enormous emigration push by Imperial Japan). It is time for Japan to return the favor and accommodate many more refugees who need a fresh start.”

Accepting refugees and encouraging immigrants to come and work in Japan are different issues. In discussing the latter point, the American business newspaper the Wall Street Journal claimed that Prime Minister Abe has ruled out a significant increase in immigration, despite many economists’ contention that it is essential to meet Japan’s long-term demographic challenges.

The WSJ said that even though Japan has an unemployment rate of just 3.4% –  one of the lowest in the world – it still faces labour shortages in many sectors.