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Japan's generous donor status gave it international influence. But at home, one policy has long been out of step. (Illustration by Eric Chow)
The Big Story

Japan's refugee conundrum: open wallet, closed borders

Tokyo's humanitarian pullback reveals waning global ambition

FRANCESCA REGALADO, Nikkei staff writer | Japan

TOKYO -- The stench from leather factories, where animal hide is skinned and cured, hangs in the air over Sumida, an industrial neighborhood in northeast Tokyo scattered with nondescript residential complexes. Inside a one-bedroom apartment, 10-year-old Rafael playfully wrestled with two volunteers from Sophia University's Refugee Support Group who had come to deliver donations of supplies and secondhand clothes. Among the gifts were storybooks, which the volunteers dangled just out of the boy's reach.

"These books are in kanji. I don't think you can read kanji yet," one of the volunteers teased, referring to Chinese characters.

"I can read kanji," Rafael insisted. "I'm Japanese!"

But although Rafael and his sister Rachel were born in Tokyo, they cannot legally claim to be Japanese. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy. Their mother, Sarah Kazooka, is Ugandan, and their father is Sri Lankan. Both refugees, they are among an estimated 1,500 currently living in Japan, displaced after fleeing persecution or violence in their home countries.

Life here is peaceful but fraught with risks. At any moment, they could be picked up by police, have their stay renewals rejected, be thrown into detention or handed a deportation order.

Kazooka fled inter-community violence in Uganda, entering Japan on a business visa and seeking asylum on her arrival. Her application for refugee status has been denied twice, and she is now waiting for a decision on her appeal.

Now, Kazooka worries about 13-year-old Rachel turning 18, when she will have to apply separately for refugee status.

"I'm scared. There are people who are 20 years old, and they grew up here and they were still denied," Kazooka said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exits after an address at the United Nations' New York headquarters in 2017.   © Reuters

For years, Japan has been one of the largest donors to international humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The country, however, has always lagged far behind its peers in the number of permanently resettled refugees. In 2019, more than 14,000 displaced persons found a new home in Canada. The U.S. led the world with nearly 25,000 refugees, despite ever-lower quotas imposed by the Trump administration and the controversial treatment of asylum-seekers at America's southern border.

Japan resettled 40 refugees last year.

Japan's generosity in funding long obscured that discrepancy. But since 2013, Japan's contributions to the UNHCR have fallen year on year, exposing the country to criticism. "Japan can't lead by only providing funding," said a diplomat who previously represented Japan at the UNHCR. "They also have to take in refugees."

Concerns over Japan's waning UNHCR commitment speak to wider questions about how Tokyo sees its role in the world and its place within the institutions of global governance. The country has long used its financial support for multilateralism to expand its influence. With U.S. increasingly looking inward under President Donald Trump, and China's rising influence prompting concerns in many capitals, this could be Japan's moment.

"The perennial problem Japan has is that it doesn't punch above its weight," said Shihoko Goto, deputy director for geoeconomics at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. "When Japan looks at itself, what does it want to be? ... So many countries are caught between the U.S. and China. Japan can actually offer a third way."

Japan, though, also seems to be stepping back.

Shifting priorities

Japan's prominence at the U.N. and its support for refugees there is bound in the reputation of one of its favored daughters, Sadako Ogata. Ogata, who passed away in October, was the first woman and the first Japanese to head the U.N. refugee agency when she took over in 1991.

Her decade-long tenure was marked by frequent personal visits to U.N. refugee camps, and outspoken pleas on behalf of millions displaced when the Soviet Union fell. It also coincided with greater financial support from Japan's government to the UNHCR. In 2000, Ogata's final year as commissioner, Japan nearly tripled its contribution to the agency. "Japan wanted to support UNHCR [in order] to support Ogata," one Japanese diplomat said.

That support continued for years afterward but has since begun to decline. "Funding peaked in 2013, but it has decreased every single year since then until 2019, while refugee numbers have been climbing," said Dirk Hebecker, who was the UNHCR's representative in Tokyo until April.

The UNHCR's funding from Japan fell to an eight-year low in 2018, when the global number of displaced people hit a record high. "Nowadays, we don't ever see those numbers going down," Hebecker said. That year, financial support for other agencies like the United Nations Children's Fund, Development Program and World Food Program was also squeezed.

Officials involved in government budget negotiations told the Nikkei Asian Review that the budget cuts were due to competition from the Abe government's favored international projects: the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and Gavi, the vaccine alliance.

"The World Health Organization and UNHCR historically had priority in the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] budget, but these days Global Fund and Gavi are [Group of Seven] priorities," a foreign ministry official said. The Global Fund was initiated by a Japanese prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, at the 2000 Group of Eight Summit in Okinawa, obligating Japan to contribute the lion's share. Japan committed $800 million in the fund's 2014 triennial replenishment and $840 million this year for the period through 2022.

This shift in focus is partly due to domestic pressure. In annual budget negotiations, Ministry of Finance officials are lobbied to back the Global Fund by parliamentarians, who themselves are lobbied by domestic organizations advocating for tuberculosis and AIDS awareness. By contrast, refugees have few influential advocates. "There's no real grassroots support for this," Goto said.

The foreign ministry's budget has stayed roughly between 800 billion yen and 900 billion yen ($7.46 billion to $8.4 billion) since its 2010 peak of 962 billion yen, meaning the increased support for the Global Fund and Gavi has translated to a reduced budget for U.N. programs. "It's an uphill battle against the wind," one U.N. official said of the budgetary constraints.

The preference for non-U.N. initiatives like the Global Fund also hints at the Japanese government's growing dissatisfaction with the U.N. system, where decision-making is often caught up in bureaucracy, and where difficult decisions can fall foul of the veto powers of the U.N. Security Council.

"There are benefits to funding organizations outside of the U.N.," a foreign ministry official said. "They're able to respond faster."

Japan's strong support for UNHCR was linked with championing its Japanese head, Sadako Ogata, pictured here visiting displaced Chechens in 1999.   © Reuters

Foreign ministry officials acknowledged some "bitterness" in Tokyo regarding the Security Council, where Japan has long lobbied for a permanent seat.

"The permanent five [grouping] is composed of the victors of World War II, countries who developed nuclear weapons. Japan lost and didn't develop nuclear weapons, but still does not get recognition for that [behavior]," said a diplomat who previously represented Japan at the U.N.

Aside from the permanent five's reticence to expand their group, Security Council reform has not been at the top of the U.N.'s agenda. "It's extremely challenging to whip votes," said a foreign ministry official who previously worked on Security Council issues. "Increasing the number of permanent members involves a lot of negotiations, and the Security Council has more urgent priorities."

In recent years, Japan seems to have backed away from the fight. "I don't see the energy for it these days compared to 10 years ago," a U.N. official said.

Within the U.N.'s professional corps, Japan trails behind fellow advanced economies. Although U.N. staff are expected to be politically neutral, officials acknowledged that the amount of funding a government contributes affects its influence on staff appointments.

Japan's foreign ministry attributes the low number of Japanese nationals working for the U.N. -- about 880, compared to over 1,000 each for other G-7 members -- to weak interest among Japanese graduates in the U.N.'s junior professional officers program.

"We receive around 300 to 400 applications for 50 posts," said a foreign ministry official who oversees the recruitment process. "When the economy is in better shape, younger people tend to go to the private sector."

Japanese peacekeepers, deployed under a rare, broader mandate to use force, land in South Sudan in 2016.   © AP

The foreign ministry aims to have 1,000 Japanese nationals in the U.N. by 2025. As of recently, five Japanese nationals held high-ranking positions in the U.N., including Izumi Nakamitsu, the under-secretary-general for disarmament, and Tadamichi Yamamoto, the former special representative for Afghanistan. But no one has reached the renown of the late Ogata. Four of the 11 U.N. agencies are led by Chinese nationals.

Japanese businesses, despite their expertise in infrastructure, are also underrepresented in U.N. procurement tenders. As of 2019, Japanese companies such as Toyota Motor, Yamaha Motor, and Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing comprised only 0.39% of total U.N. procurement, and 0.49% for peacekeeping operations.

Technical experts inside the foreign ministry are resorting to more creative ways to secure funding for the U.N. agencies in their portfolio. Aside from the funding allocated in the annual regular budget, the U.N. frequently receives emergency supplementary funding from Japan. Recently, the foreign ministry allocated an additional $25 million for the UNHCR to protect refugees from the coronavirus.

U.N. officials fear funding cuts will be the new normal. Some in the Japanese government see it as a natural consequence of Japan's shrinking economy.

"We had an obligation to support international organizations when we were No. 2. But we stayed the same, and the U.S. grew, and China just jumped," one diplomat said, adding that spending has to be justified to Japanese taxpayers.

But contributing less to the international system, with the U.N. at its head, gives Japan less leverage over the world's affairs. Said one U.N. official, "We are asking ourselves: "Is Japan shifting away from its previous international engagement?"

With the Japanese economy heading for recession, budget constraints are unlikely to be eased. Some experts privately point out that taking in refugees could be a cost-effective way to win back some goodwill, and could help to alleviate part of Japan's perennial labor shortages. The social barriers that would prevent such action remain daunting, however.

A fraught topic

Uninterrupted conversations are a luxury for Chie Komai. In a single hour, the phone in her small law office in Tokyo rang at least three times with calls from inside the Shinagawa detention center. Her legal services are in high demand because there are very few like her -- Japanese lawyers who specialize in refugee and asylum cases.

"Every year we lose lawyers who want to do refugee cases," Komai said, because there is close to zero financial gain.

Friends have implored Komai to stop accepting new clients. "Sometimes it's so difficult to refuse," she said because she knows the refugees' plight. Komai chose her specialty while studying law in the U.K., where learning about Japan's low refugee recognition rate spurred her to return home and support asylum-seekers.

The Ministry of Justice, which processes refugee applications, is wary of people seeking asylum in Japan to escape the economic situation in their homelands, not because of war and persecution. The largest group of asylum applicants in Japan come from its own backyard -- Southeast Asia.

"Indonesia and the Philippines are not countries that produce refugees in other parts of the world," Hebecker said.

Claims from "safer" countries have added to the Ministry of Justice's backlog of 2,000 applications. Many applicants are believed to have abandoned their claims and returned to their home countries.

The backlog is not helped by the biennial rotation in the Japanese civil service, giving refugees no chance to develop a rapport with immigration officers familiar with their cases. Gabriel, an asylum-seeker from Nigeria, said he has to repeat his story every two years to case workers unfamiliar with the extremist group Boko Haram, which is preventing his safe return home.

A Japanese advocate for refugees said the constant turnover is why refugees from countries with prominent conflicts like Syria get priority. "They're not seeking this information," the advocate said. "They only see what's prominent in the media."

Gabriel is well-known among his fellow refugees for connecting them with advocacy groups and helping to build a community. His ready smile and friendly manner hide the difficulty of living in uncertainty for 28 years. With legal employment precluded by the karihomen provisional release, for a couple of years he was homeless in Tokyo.

Every two months, Gabriel reports to the immigration bureau for an interview to renew his karihomen. Twice, his renewal was rejected, leading to monthslong internments in the Shinagawa detention center.

Kazooka, the refugee mother from Uganda, has learned to live with this nerve-wracking ritual. "Every two months I go to get my release, then I try not to worry about it. It's not good for the kids," she said.

Now, with the help of an elderly Japanese sponsor, Gabriel has a place to live. A fortunate few rely on the generosity of relatives, fellow immigrants, and Japanese citizens. Kazooka receives a monthly sum from two Japanese women she met by chance at a train station. "It doesn't cover everything, but it helps with the rent, the school fees, the bills," she said.

Employee turnover in the Ministry of Justice means refugees from countries with high-profile conflicts like Syria get priority, said a Japanese advocate for refugees."They only see what's prominent in the media."   © Kyodo

Others seek help from the few civil society groups for refugees, including the government-funded Refugee Assistance Headquarters, the Catholic Tokyo International Center, Sophia University's Refugee Support Group, and Welgee, which matches refugees with potential employers.

Welgee's career program manager, Nana Yamamoto, compared Japan to Germany and France, where the state provides educational and financial support to refugees, freeing civil society groups to focus on social integration. In Japan, she said, "civil society groups are doing a lot of work, but their resources are spent on the everyday needs of the refugees because government support for refugees is so low."

At present, the government has no impetus to raise its refugee quota because immigration is already a politically fraught topic. In 2018, immigration laws were loosened to accept more highly skilled laborers in demand by Japanese companies, but the quota was severely undershot last year. Only 1,019 skilled work visas were granted out of an available 40,000.

There may be a path to stay in Japan other than refugee status. Over half of the refugees who work with Welgee have at least a college degree, which allows Welgee to submit them as candidates to Japanese companies looking to diversify their workforces and secure skilled worker visas. Last year, through Welgee, Yamaha Motor hired a refugee from East Africa to open a new regional office on the continent.

"Market potential in Africa for the long term is very promising, especially for the motorcycle business," said Shoji Shiraishi, head of global business development at Yamaha. "But our market share is only 1%, so it's very tough to compete against the Chinese and Indian players."

In Welgee's candidate, Shiraishi found an entrepreneur with knowledge of not only the local market but also Japanese business culture.

Hebecker, the former UNHCR representative, said accepting refugees is in Japan's strategic interest. "It builds sympathy for Japan in the hearts and minds of displaced people who will someday rebuild their countries," he said. "Imagine Syria will need to be rebuilt from scratch. There would be a major infrastructure and development role for Japan and a new consumer market for Japanese businesses."

Welgee is a company that matches refugees with potential employers: Over half the refugees they work with hold at least a college degree. (Photo courtesy of Welgee)

Last June, a Nigerian asylum-seeker died of starvation in an immigration facility after a hunger strike to protest the length of his detention. The man had been convicted of crimes perpetrated while he was on provisional release, but his death stirred a few news headlines shedding light on the plight of Japan's refugees.

The bad press, however, may have led officials to conclude that detention centers are oversubscribed and to further squeeze immigration channels. The Justice Ministry's special committee on deportation and detention is expected to hand down recommendations for even stricter immigration rules this year.

One proposed change would impose a criminal penalty for noncompliance with a deportation order, which may be difficult for refugees to honor if they do not have the funds for a plane ticket or if returning to their home countries is dangerous.

"Human rights conditions need to be improved -- not only for asylum-seekers in detention, but also for immigrant workers," Komai said. "If not, who will come to Japan?"

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