POINT OF VIEW/ Kiyohiko Toyama:Refugees need better services, not quotas


* If Japan aspires to be a humanitarian superpower, I insist it must first upgrade the quality of treatment it accords refugees.

Following the “Shenyang Five” incident at the Japanese consulate-general in Shenyang, China, the government has started reviewing its current policy for the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The Justice Ministry, which is the policy’s enforcement authority, seems set to get down to business. The ministry has just appointed a new, working-level subcommittee to its Immigration Control Policy Council, which is a private advisory panel to the justice minister.

I, however, take strong exception to the government’s thinking that the Justice Ministry should be solely responsible for anything that has to do with refugees and asylum seekers.

I am not challenging the ministry’s prerogative to determine whether to grant them refugee status. My point is that dealing with refugees involves a whole set of related issues that have to be addressed, such as where, when and how they can be recognized as refugees, what treatment should be given to those who have applied for recognition as refugees and are awaiting the ministry’s decision, and how best to support those who have been accepted into Japanese society.

When we consider this entire process, it becomes obvious that other government ministries should also be involved-the Foreign Ministry to deal with would-be refugees at overseas missions; the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to provide Japanese-language education; the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to provide support in such areas as health care, social insurance, housing and employment; and the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications to provide various administrative services, including resident registration.

In short, the refugee issue requires attention that crosses ministerial borders. And if the government is really serious about revamping its refugee policy, it would make best sense to let the Cabinet Secretariat oversee the entire process as a whole.

We must remind ourselves here, however, that there are two categories of refugees recognized by the government, and that the two groups are treated differently.

One category consists of Indochinese refugees, who have been receiving a red-carpet treatment since the Cabinet adopted a policy in 1979 to facilitate their settlement in Japan. The Cabinet Secretariat has a liaison-coordination council for this purpose, while the Foundation for the Welfare and Education of the Asian People, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry, provides a comprehensive refugee support program.

The other category consists of those who have been recognized as refugees under the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There is no systematic support program for these people. And if they have family members left behind in their countries, getting them to come and live in Japan is effectively out of the question, whereas Indochinese refugees are able to do so without any difficulty.

Moreover, these people are required by the immigration control law to file their application for refugee status within 60 days of their arrival in Japan. And while they await the Justice Ministry decision-which can take usually anywhere between a year and two years-they are treated as illegal immigrants, which means they can neither work nor settle down.

In March last year, a U.N. committee for the enforcement of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination denounced this situation and demanded rectification.

The Japanese government should comply at once. Since the government already has a comprehensive support program for Indochinese refugees and their families, I suggest that the government expand the program to include other refugees. If this is not immediately practicable, then the government should create a new, alternative support scjeme for these people.

The Diet is focusing only on how many refugees Japan should accept, failing to address the quality of treatment being given to would-be and recognized refugees. But from the humanitarian standpoint, just increasing their “quota” without improving their lot is a sure formula for disaster.

If Japan aspires to be a humanitarian superpower, I insist it must first upgrade the quality of treatment it accords refugees.

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Kiyohiko Toyama is a New Komeito member of the Upper House. He contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.(IHT/Asahi: July 3,2002)

International Herald Tribune & The Asahi Shimbun