Japan’s refugee policy could be changed by the war in Ukraine

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TOKYO — Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, refugee-averse Japan has taken in more than 1,300 people fleeing the conflict and provided social services to help them assimilate — a rare and surprising move which could mark a turning point in the country’s longstanding restrictions on such people. fleeing violence and persecution.

Since Japan’s prime minister officially announced the change on March 2 – just days after the invasion – the country has welcomed not only Ukrainians with relatives or acquaintances in Japan, but also anyone seeking refuge due to the conflict. . Government agencies have been exceptionally generous in providing stipends, mental health support, language classes and housing to help Ukrainians adjust to their new lives.

Today, refugee groups wonder if this rapid response could serve as a model for future humanitarian crises and conflicts. Japan, one of the richest countries in the world, has some of the most restrictive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers. According to Vatican Refugees websiteJapan has the lowest asylum admission rate in the developed world.

In Japan and throughout Asia, an outpouring of support for Ukraine

“We believe that the current situation could potentially become a turning point for the future acceptance of refugees,” said Eri Ishikawa, chairwoman of the board of directors of the Japanese Association for Refugees. “We hope the government will take heed of the increased public interest in welcoming refugees and quickly undertake a fundamental overhaul of the entire system.

The conflict has sparked a dramatic reaction from Japan, amid fears that Russia’s invasion could embolden China’s growing military assertiveness in the region. There is also broad public support for the Ukrainians – which is unusual given the lukewarm Japanese interest in other crises that have triggered an influx of refugees, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the military coup in Myanmar and the war in Syria.

But this time, Japan circumvented restrictive laws that narrowly define refugees by labeling Ukrainians “evacuated”.

Of the 1,316 Ukrainians who entered Japan since March 2, the bulk, 236 of them, went to Tokyo, the country’s largest prefecture and capital, according to the Immigration Services Agency. Tokyo’s services include a help desk, free temporary housing and long-term social housing with free utilities, public transport discounts and language support.

Since 1982, when Japan enacted its laws to accept refugees, 87,892 people have applied for refugee status, and barely 915 were accepted, according to the immigration agency. In 2021, Japan granted 74 applicants refugee status.

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Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said there was momentum following the Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympics, with the focus on human rights and the inclusion of marginalized communities, including refugees. The dramatic evacuation to Japan of two Afghan Paralympians who fled Kabul amid the Taliban takeover following the US withdrawal have also helped raise awareness of the plight of refugees.

“Russia’s invasion hit the Japanese people very hard this time, especially with such vivid information reaching people directly, which strengthened people’s sense of accepting evacuees,” Koike said in an interview. .

While Koike said the public mood has become more open to such efforts to help foreigners, she paused before saying it was a sign of lasting change: “We need to follow the decisions and the framework of the national government, so the Tokyo metropolitan government, we would like to closely monitor how the government will make changes [in accepting more refugees in the long term].”

It remains unclear whether the national government will take meaningful steps to revise refugee laws. In April, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would consider a “quasi-refugee system” to accommodate some evacuees, including Ukrainians.

There are indications that the public would support an expansion of support. In a month of March investigation by the Nippon Research Center, 51.9% said acceptance of refugees should be increased from results in 2020, when respondents were more wary of such a decision.

But life in Japan is difficult even for those granted refugee status or asylum under cumbersome and often opaque immigration laws. The lengthy review process has led to applications pending for an average of four years, advocates say, with little or no government funding or the ability to work. During this time, migrants may be detained and subjected to inhumane treatment in detention centers, sometimes resulting in atrocious cases of violence and even death.

The invasion of Russia prompts Japan to a more assertive foreign policy

The Japanese Association for Refugees helps more than 300 people a year to apply for refugee status, the majority of whom are from Africa. In 2021, only six people fleeing Africa have been accepted as refugees, and many continue to live in poverty without residency status and without a clear path to obtaining employment and housing in Japan, said Ishikawa, chairman of the council. administration. The organization is mainly funded by donations, but its financial support has not increased much since the Ukraine crisis.

A group called Japanese Supports for Ukrainian Students, comprising nearly 100 language schools across Japan, offered free lessons and raised funds to help offset expenses and travel costs. There are about 800 language schools in Japan, and previously only about five helped refugees.

Norito Hiraoka, director of the Seifu Institute of Information Technology, one of the participating schools, said the effort was possible because of the uniqueness of the conflict. In particular, the threat of nuclear weapons by Russian President Vladimir Putin has sparked fear in Japan, the only country to have known the devastation of a nuclear attack.

“I don’t really think it will be a turning point. The extraordinary support we see is because it was Ukraine,” Hiraoka said. “I find it hard to imagine there will be the same kind of outpouring of support if another tragedy unfolds overseas.”

But other groups hope they are laying the groundwork. For example, the Japan Organization of Mental Health and Education Agencies recruits Japanese volunteers, including university students, counselors and athletes, and touts the importance of supporting those who experience the trauma of war and other conflicts.

Last month, the organization launched a Ukrainian Interaction Center to help families, especially with young children. At a recent event, Japanese volunteers taught Ukrainian evacuees how to make sushi, and evacuees showed volunteers how to cook Ukrainian dishes and do embroidery.

“I hope this can become a turning point. If the Ukrainians who comee in Japan can settle well and create a real community here, through communication and interaction with them, I think the feelings of the Japanese people will change,” said Mariko Ukiyo, director of the organization.

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