Should Japan hold a responsibility to take in more refugees?

The current refugee crisis hitting Europe has been the biggest wave of mass immigration since the Second World War. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that between January and November 2015, more than 750,000 migrants were detected at EU borders, compared with the 280,000 in 2014. Figures like these exemplify the stark rise in comparison to last year’s situation.

European countries have responded in varying ways to this crisis. The United Kingdom has decided to opt out of the quota system altogether, and has instead offered to take in 20,000 migrants over the next parliament directly from migrant camps in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. Many regard this figure to be insufficient, especially since Germany had pledged to take in refugees with open arms, expecting between 1.5 million refugees this year. Germany remains the most generous country in Europe when it comes to welcoming refugees. In contrast to Germany’s generosity, Hungary has built barbed wire fences along its borders, trying to stop the flow of migration altogether; Slovenia, a small country of around 2 million people, has also started to erect a razor wire fence along parts of its border with Croatia to curb the flow of refugees.

The responses and action plans of various European countries have been extremely diverse. The three countries with the highest GDPs in Europe are reacting in different ways. Whilst Germany has been proactive in making efforts to take in a larger proportion of refugees, and also France to an extent, the UK has been fairly passive in this area and has preferred to give financial aid directly to refugee camps instead. In September, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an extra £115 million in response to the migration crisis. Nevertheless, the UK has not been as proactive and welcoming as some of its European neighbours.

Outside of Europe, there are many other wealthy countries who have been criticized for not taking in more refugees and not doing more to help. The Gulf States in particular have been heavily criticized. Not one single Syrian refugee has been taken in by countries such as Bahrain, UAE, or Kuwait, neighbouring countries to war-torn Syria. They too, have taken an argument similar to that of the UK, by insisting that their donation of millions of dollars towards the crisis should be taken into account. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon however, who are much poorer and economically unstable, have taken in millions of refugees. According to Amnesty international, as of September more than 4 million refugees from Syria (95% of total) are just in five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

Other wealthy countries who have been sparing with their intake include South Korea, Russia, Singapore, and Japan. In 2014, Japan accepted 11 refugees out of 5000 applications. One might ask themselves why the third largest economy in the world is doing next to nothing when it comes to taking in refugees, whilst poorer countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have taken in so many. There are many reasons for why Japan has not taken in refugees. One being that the openness and welcoming attitude that many European citizens have shown towards refugees is not as abundant in Japan. There has not been a large citizen’s movement to take in refugees, and neither has there been real inquisition to the Japanese government to take in more refugees.

This is partly to do with geography. The crisis affecting Europe is very far away from Japan, and the refugee crisis is not something which will directly affect the lives of average Japanese people. The refugee crisis has not been making the front page daily of main Japanese news outlets as it has been in the European media. In contrast, the Greek debt crisis earlier this year had a heavier presence on the front page of Japanese newspapers. This is because the Greek debt crisis was more likely to have a direct effect on the average Japanese person compared to the current refugee crisis.

Another reason for their low intake is just the fact that Japan does not have a refugee taking ‘culture.’ Japan first started taking refugees in the late 1970s, when the country became part of the G7. Japan was pressured by the international community to take in refugees, and subsequently began to take in Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing from war. Yet from that point on, the number of refugees Japan took in continued to be drastically low. Between 1982 and 2008, Japan accepted only 508 refugees. It was as if Japan felt like it had done its job to please the international community, and was not going to go further than that. Japan is a largely homogenous country, unused to ‘cultural melting pots’ or ‘multiculturalism’ that is so very vibrant in many Western cities such as London, Paris and New York. 

Japan is also a signatory of the UN’s 1951 Refugees Convention, which is intended to guarantee protection for anyone who has fled their homeland because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” However, the government does not class escaping war as a legitimate reason for claiming asylum. For Japan, taking in refugees is not something that they consider to be a necessary thing to do as a rich and developed nation. Shinzo Abe, the Prime minister of Japan said at the UN general assembly in September, “As an issue of demography, I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, by elderly people and we must raise (the) birthrate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.”

While Japan donated $181.6m to the UNHCR, second only to the United States, there has been barely any movement with regards to taking in refugees proactively. Countries in Western Europe and also the United States have a long history of refugees. Many successful people were refugees. To name just a few, Albert Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Sigmund Freud were all people who fled the Nazi occupation. Economic aid is always a very good thing, and it is reassuring that Japan have continued to give a large amount of aid. (Although nothing compared to the 13 billion dollars they spent on the Iraq war). It is hard to imagine a mass influx of refugees would come all the way to Japan to seek shelter, but it would be a good thing for Japan, as the third largest economy in the world, to make the gesture of taking in even a couple of thousand refugees.

Although this is not something which is part of their culture, Japan as a wealthy and affluent country with a dwindling population definitely has the capability to take in more refugees. I think that taking in more refugees would not only be a moral thing to do, but also a symbolic gesture, that would portray Japan not only as a generous financial donor, but also as a hospitable nation which opens its arms to the plight of citizens all around the world.

About the Author

Lucy Tasker was born and raised in Japan, and holds a degree in Japanese and Korean from Soas, University of London. Having grown up in Tokyo until her early teens, she has a solid grounding and understanding of Japanese culture and society. She currently works for a Japanese newspaper in London. Her interests include Japanese foreign policy, EU-Japan relations, Japan-Korea relations and jazz. When she is not busy working, she spends her time playing the clarinet.

Cover image ‘IOM and Japan continue to help Syrian refugees‘ by International Organization for Migration

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