Prime minister Shinzo Abe rejects criticism of a policy that has seen only 11 people given asylum in the past year
Japan must improve the living standards of its own people before it can consider accepting Syrian refugees, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe said, as he announced $1.6bn in new assistance for Syrians and Iraqis caught up in conflicts in the Middle East.
Abe’s consistent refusal to consider allowing even a modest number of refugees to relocate to Japan has prompted criticism of the country’s strict policy on asylum: last year, it received a record 5,000 applications but accepted just 11 people.
Speaking at the UN general assembly in New York, Abe insisted Japan must first tackle crises posed by its falling birth rate and an ageing population, and continue its push to boost the number of women in the labour market.
“It is an issue of demography,” Abe told reporters after his speech to the UN general assembly. “I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, elderly people and we must raise our birth rate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.”
Abe added Japan, which is pushing for a permanent seat on the UN security council, would “discharge our own responsibility” in addressing the causes of the refugee crisis.
“Japan would like to contribute by changing the conditions that give rise to refugees. The cause of this tragedy is the fear of violence and terrorism, and terror of poverty. The world must cooperate in order for them to find a way to escape poverty.”
Japan’s latest aid package includes $810m for refugees and internally displaced people fleeing fighting in Syria and Iraq – three times the amount it provided last year – and $750m to fund peace-building efforts in the Middle East and Africa.
Human rights groups have highlighted the fact Japan and other high-income countries such as Russia, Singapore and South Korea have failed to help relieve the pressure on countries in the Middle East and Europe, as they struggle to cope with the influx of people caught up in the world’s worst refugee crisis since the second word war.
Japan, however, has pointed to its record on providing aid to refugees: last year, it contributed $181.6m to the UN refugee agency, second only to the US. But it has not matched its financial largesse with pledged to accommodate Syrian and other refugees.
Of 60 Syrians already living in Japan who applied for refugee status, three have been successful and another 30 or so have been given permission to stay long-term for humanitarian reasons, according to the Japanese association for refugees.
Japan’s population is expected to fall dramatically in the coming decades, with experts predicting a serious strain on the economy from a shrinking workforce and rising pension and social security costs. But few politicians have broached immigration as a possible solution.
“To publicly broach mass immigration – and the multicultural adjustments in Japanese life that it would necessarily entail – as a means of solving the country’s looming demographic crisis is something that verges on sacrilege,” said MG Sheftall, a professor of modern Japanese cultural history at Shizuoka University. “For an important national figure to do so would be an act of political suicide.”
While he did not mention any country by name, the EU council president, Donald Tusk, appeared to round on the “hypocrisy” of Gulf states criticising European nations for not taking in enough refugees, while refusing to accept any themselves.
“Many countries represented here deal with this problem in a much simpler way; namely by not allowing migrants and refugees to enter their territories at all,” Tusk said in New York.