Japan: The Financial Benefactor of Syrian Refugees

By Josh Kadish

Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe identified “refugee issues” as one of the most serious challenges faced by the international community” at the Leader’s Summit on Refugees, hosted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on September 20, 2016. [1] Japan, however, has historically resisted accepting refugees and, presently, has continued its stringent process in granting refugee status in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. The low admittance of refugees into Japan is a result of various factors, from geographical isolation to a homogeneous Japanese culture, but the most significant obstacle is the refugee recognition process itself.

Japan began accepting refugees in 1978 as it confronted a refugee crisis from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This influx of refugees from Southeast Asia prompted Japan to accept the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as to enact the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. [2] . According to its refugee policy, the Japanese government follows the narrowest definition of a refugee, meaning that it only recognizes refugee status for reasons specifically outlined in the Convention and the Protocol, which makes it difficult to receive recognition of refugee status from the Japanese government. The UN Convention defines refugees to include only those facing persecution, specifically “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social ground, or political opinion.” [3] In order to obtain refugee status in Japan, an individual must be able to prove this well-founded fear of being persecuted for a specific reason outlined in the UN Convention. Additionally, the process itself requires anyone seeking refugee status to physically arrive in Japan and request permission to stay temporarily, which is difficult due to Japan’s geographical isolation and distance. Furthermore, those who manage to arrive in Japan and receive permission to remain are not entitled to any of the assistance that is provided to refugees, and most will never receive recognized refugee status due to the narrow definition of a refugee. In general, Japan’s refugee recognition process severely restricts the granting of refugee status and seems to institutionally deter refugees from seeking status in Japan.

As of 2015, Japan had only recognized six Syrians refugees. As one of the largest economies in the world, Japan needs to do more. Prime Minister Abe presented several commitments towards assisting Syrian refugees, most of which were financial, including “about 2.8 billion US dollars between 2016 and 2018 as humanitarian and self-reliance assistance to refugees and migrants…” and “approximately 100 million US dollars to the World Bank’s Global Crisis Response Platform.” [4] Abe’s only commitment to accepting refugees was to “accept up to 150 Syrian students in the coming five years” and to allow their families to come to Japan. This commitment, however, fails to provide these students and families refugee status. [5] Prime Minister Abe presented a hopeful image of Japan’s future involvement in the Syrian refugee crisis, yet the commitments were largely financial. While Japan has self-positioned itself as a financial benefactor, trends reveal that Japan may not be at fault for its lack of Syrian refugees, because Japan may not be their most desired location for seeking asylum.

In 2017, there were 19,629 applications for refugee status in Japan, indicating an approximate 80% increase from the previous year.This reveals that many refugees do want to come to Japan. The top ten countries of these applicants, however, were the Philippines (24.9% of applicants), Vietnam (15.9%), Sri Lanka (11.3%), Indonesia (10.4%), Nepal (7.4%), Turkey (6.1%), Myanmar (4.9%), Cambodia (3.9%), India (3.1%), and Pakistan (2.4%). [6] Surprisingly, there were only 36 total applicants from Syria, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Sudan, often considered to be the top five countries in the world from which people are being forced to flee. Therefore, the lack of Syrian refugees in Japan may not be a consequence of the Japanese government’s policies, but, rather, because of Syrian refugees choosing not to seek refugee status in Japan, perhaps as a consequence of its geographical isolation and distance. Japan, however, does continue to reject a disproportionate amount of its refugee applications. Only 65 applicants of the 19,629 applications were permitted to remain in Japan. Of these 65 applicants, only 20 of them were recognized as refugees, while the 45 others were permitted to stay in Japan temporarily for humanitarian reasons. [7] In fact, five of the 20 recognized refugees were from Syria, with four more Syrians being permitted to stay in Japan due to humanitarian considerations without receiving refugee status. [8]

While it seems that Japan recognizes the refugees that are in the most need, it can do more to change, as a society, to become more welcoming and accepting of refugees. Japan’s self-positioning as a financial benefactor for refugees, made evident by its financial commitments, may be a consequence of seeking to fulfill its commitments. [9] Japan’s humanitarian aid policies towards Syrian refugees have not failed; rather Japan has successfully used its economic power to support Syrian refugees globally. In the realm of refugee status recognition, however, there is still much that can be done not only for Syrian refugees, but for all refugees who desire to come to Japan.

Josh Kadish is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is majoring in Political Science and Modern Middle Eastern Studies.

Works Cited

[1] Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, “Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Leader’s Summit on Refugees.”

[2] Umeda Sayuri. "Refugee Law and Policy: Japan." Library of Congress.

[3] United Nations. "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees." UNHCR. Accessed January 05, 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/protection/basic/3b66c2aa10/convention-protocol-relating-status-refugees.html.

[4] Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, “Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Leader’s Summit on Refugees,” September 20, 2016.

[5] Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, “Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Leader’s Summit on Refugees,” September 20, 2016.

[6] Ministry of Justice. Immigration Bureau. "Number of Applicants Recognized as Refugees in 2017." News release, March 2018.,  5.

[7] Ministry of Justice. Immigration Bureau. "Number of Applicants Recognized as Refugees in 2017." News release, March 2018., 1

[8] Ministry of Justice. Immigration Bureau. "Number of Applicants Recognized as Refugees in 2017." News release, March 2018., 10

Image Source: https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/2017/01/09/women-to-women-lebanese-red-cross-volunteers-tackle-taboos-at-syrian-refugee-camps/