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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

Japan must do more to accept, aid refugees: U.S. NGO reps

Staff writer

The government's support for refugees has made considerable progress compared with the 1990s, but it must do more and assist those who have already been granted asylum, according to the International Rescue Committee, a major U.S. nongovernmental organization.

News photo
Jana Mason (right) and Vanessa Ortiz speak in an interview at the Japan Association for Refugees office in Tokyo last week. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"The fact that the door was opened for a visit from us indicates that the Japanese government is interested in learning refugee resettlement practices (in the U.S.)," Vanessa Ortiz, an IRC project officer, said in an interview last week.

Ortiz and Jana Mason, deputy director of government relations for IRC, were visiting Japan through Tuesday at the invitation of the Japan Association for Refugees to share their expertise on assistance with government officials and NGOs.

"I think we are going in the right direction, I think it's very positive," Ortiz said.

Known for being reluctant to accept refugees, Japan made exceptional efforts last year by instituting a revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law to this end.

Under the law, asylum-seekers who have reached Japan without a visa are given provisional stay for up to three months that can be extended to wait for screening processes. Asylum-seekers in Japan who arrived on a short-stay visa and then overstayed can get extensions every six months during the screening.

Previously, asylum-seekers without a visa faced immediate deportation after entering the country.

As a result, Japan granted refugee status to 46 asylum- seekers in 2005, a record high since 1983.

Although this pales in comparison with the approximately 70,000 admitted as refugees and granted asylum by the U.S. in 2005, Mason called the number a considerable step forward for Japan, which had granted refugee status to only 49 people during the entire 1990s.

According to Mason, the appropriate number of refugees a country should admit must be based on its size and population as well as the number of applicants. But there is no magic number, and it is estimated there are 11 million refugees worldwide.

"There is no shortage of refugees," she said. The group urged Japan to initiate an overseas refugee admissions program, under which Japanese officials begin screening applicants while they are still abroad.

This is common practice for many developed countries. Japan, however, only takes in some of the asylum-seekers who have entered the country.

Ortiz, a specialist on advising refugee aid organizations, also said that instead of focusing on numbers, Japan must look at the situation from a humanitarian point of view and create ways to support refugees already who have already been accepted.

"I visited refugee families who have lived in Japan for many years but don't have employment rights and have no medical services," she said, stressing that those granted asylum are less likely to depend on government support or break any law to fulfill their needs if they are given the opportunity to work.

From an economic viewpoint, Japan, which faces a manpower shortage, may even benefit from accepting refugees and providing them with job opportunities.

The shortage can be resolved to some extent by allowing refugees to engage in manual labor -- although the ultimate goal should be to provide them with jobs that have benefits and eventually get them off government assistance, Ortiz said.

Yukako Matsuura of JAR said she hopes Japanese NGOs will collaborate with corporations to provide work for refugees, as IRC does in the United States.

Mason said another issue Japan may have to handle is the political instability in North Korea and the possible influx of thousands seeking asylum.

"The food situation there is not simply a famine, it's a man-made situation where the government's policies contributed," she said. "Those still in the country as well as the small number that managed to escape really need protection and should not be sent back to where they were."

While Japan receives high marks from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organizations for its financial contributions, the country will have to further open up and welcome those who have fled their homelands, considering its status as a developed and wealthy country, Mason said.

"We hope that Japan would set an example as a leading country in the world," she said.

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