JIN-459 -- Japan and Refugees

J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 459 Wednesday April 2, 2008, Tokyo

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Japan and Refugees

On May 12, 1975, a boat full of deracinated Vietnamese arrived
east of Tokyo, in Chiba. Having declined signing the 1951
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the Protocol
of 1967, Japan was legally and politically unequipped to deal
with the problem. Facing pressure from the US and others to
allow Indo-Chinese refugees shelter, Japan slowly started to
develop its legislative framework to accommodate them. According
to a report from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR),
between 1978 and 2002 Japan accepted 10,941 Indo-Chinese
refugees and has gradually been taking a friendlier stance
towards asylum seekers. Most recently, in February this year,
Japan agreed to help dozens of refugees from Myanmar.

However, Japan’s record on recognizing and providing for
refugees is still singled out for reproach — the UNHCR rank
Japan 48th out of 50 industrialized countries for the number
of refugees accepted per 1,000 of the population. Recent
research in the Journal of Refugee studies (Dean & Nagashima
vol.20 no.3) notes that of the 3,544 applications for asylum
that Japan received between the years 1982 and 2004, in only 330
cases was a form of humanitarian status granted. Countries such
as the UK, France and the US accept more than double this number
in most years. On the other hand, in terms of financial
assistance to the UNHCR, Japan has long ranked in the top five
countries and its overseas aid and assistance budget, a
significant proportion of which goes towards funding refugee
related issues, also stands higher than most other nations –
just this month Japan donated US$2.5 million to facilitate UNHCR
repatriation programs for Liberian refugees in Guineau. As Dean
& Nagashima put it, ‘The contrast between Japan’s willingness to
donate vast sums for the protection and support of refugees
overseas and its narrow and ungenerous protection regime at home
is stark.’

This line of criticism brings up an important question: would it
be of more benefit to refugees worldwide if Japan were to put
away its cheque book and start opening its doors? Jane Best, CEO
and President of the non-profit organization, Refugees
International Japan (RIJ - www.refugeesinternationaljapan.org)
argues that, while of course it is a good thing if Japan allows
more refugees asylum, ‘RIJ focuses on assisting refugees who
hope to go home. Our theme is helping refugees to return home,
rebuild communities and establish peace. There is a commonly -
held myth that refugees want to live in other countries, but the
majority do want to return home. As a small organization it
makes more sense for RIJ to concentrate on this rather than
trying to spread ourselves too thinly.’ While lobby groups and
NGOs are better placed to persuade the government and
bureaucracy to prepare the legal and political environment for
Japan to be a safe haven for those fleeing oppressive regimes
and humanitarian disasters, groups such as RIJ raise funds in
order to assist projects for refugee care and repatriation
projects across the globe.

Jane Best told us that in Japan, both the government and its
citizens ‘are interested in helping refugees around the world,
but there is a lack of knowledge about the issues and media
coverage is limited.’ RIJ thus focuses on raising awareness and
funds that are then distributed to local NGOs on the ground ‘who
are working to improve conditions for refugees and empowering
them - we fund sustainable solutions with an emphasis on
rebuilding, training and education.’ While government money is
often dispersed via larger organizations affiliated to the UN or
the World Food Program, RIJ’s projects are not tied to any
political inclination. Neither is it limited as the government
often is, to working on only high profile, widespread
humanitarian catastrophes. For example, in south Senegal, south
of Gambia, RIJ funded a group building irrigation systems for
those displaced by civil conflict there. RIJ does not
participate in projects themselves, Best explains, ‘that is best
done by the NGOs and experts on the ground,’ but it strives only
to fund projects that are sustainable and go beyond an immediate
injection of finite cash or resources.

Given the vast sums of money donated by the government for
overseas aid and development, it is perhaps surprising that
groups such are able to raise additional revenue. However,
established in 1979 RIJ has been able to move with the times
and adapt its fundraising techniques. Last year, it raised
US$445,000 that was donated to 24 projects spread over 13
countries. In 2006 Best became CEO, the first paid member of
staff the organization has had, in a bid to add professionalism
to activities, increase transparency and ultimately raise more
money for the initiatives it wants to support. Best explains
that as well as individual donors, corporations are increasingly
aware of their obligations to give back to communities –
corporate social responsibility as current jargon would have it.
RIJ has thus built relations with numerous Japanese businesses
and multinational companies working in Japan - sponsors such as
Cosmo PR, HSBC, Shinsei Bank, Rolex and the law firm Herbert
Smith are among the impressive and expansive list of corporate

Meanwhile, there has also been a growth of activity and interest
related to the campaign to get Japan to open up to more
refugees. For example, in 1999 the Japan Association for
Refugees was founded – it coordinates with the UNHCR to improve
the social and legal conditions for refugees in Japan.
Ultimately however, many reformers feel that the government need
to stop passing the buck to NGOs and charities and do more
itself. On the other hand, a focus on repatriation and
rebuilding would help to tackle the root causes of tragic human

Peter Harris

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-- Entrepreneur Association of Tokyo-Monday, April 7th ----

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Date/Time: Monday, April 7th, 7:00 pm
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