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Japan’s Liberal-Democratic Paradox of Refugee Admission: A Q&A with Konrad Kalicki

Konrad Kalicki is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies and Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. He is author of “Japan's Liberal-Democratic Paradox of Refugee Admission,” which appears in the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. In the interview below, conducted by Rajit Mazumder (DePaul University), Kalicki discusses his research on Japanese refugee policy and how civil society efforts might offer an alternative pathway to resettlement for refugees seeking sanctuary in Japan.

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Could I begin by asking about the article’s classification of “refugees” as a “special category of international migrants”? “Migrants” are presumed to be moving voluntarily, whereas refugee movement is involuntary, forced by war, persecution, or natural disaster. More importantly, migrants do not face a “well-founded fear of persecution” if returned home, which is the main criterion in refugee status determination. 

Refugees (and asylum seekers) are commonly recognized as a special category of international migrants—people who cross national borders to take up residence in another country—because of the involuntary nature of their move, often driven by fear of persecution in their home countries. They are considered to be particularly vulnerable migrants and hence in need of international protection.

In March 2016, Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would accept 150 Syrians students over a 5-year period (p.10). Japan’s “private refugee sponsorship” saw the acceptance of six Syrian refugees in March 2017 and a further eight in October 2017 (p.12), and Uniqlo employed 39 refugees in Japan in December 2017 (p.13). This is a total of 53. There are currently 6.3 million Syrians among the world’s 25.4 million “refugees” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).1 In light of these numbers, do you think private organizations can effectively change Japan’s “open wallet, closed door” policy, or make a difference of requisite proportion?2

Scholars and practitioners debate what constitutes the most effective refugee policy, and the jury is still out. Regardless, I would not discard Japan’s generous financial contribution to the refugee cause. Its “open wallet” does make a difference worldwide. But if we assume that resettlement of the world’s refugees is indeed the most durable option, and thus the ultimate goal, then clearly we are not even close to achieving this objective. Despite claiming a high moral ground, states are reluctant to accept refugees on a large scale. Last year, only 4.7% of “global refugee resettlement needs” were met, according to the UNHCR. As many traditional resettlement states (such as the United States) reduce their intake, the numbers admitted are declining further, rendering future prospects even less reassuring. Yet we must be sober about this reality and search for feasible policy innovations.

My article assesses Japan’s potential to respond to the UNHCR’s call for measures that move beyond the state-centric paradigm of refugee admission. I find evidence that Japan is well equipped to emulate Canada’s highly praised model of private refugee sponsorship, which is gaining popularity worldwide. In this model, community and religious organizations and private individuals take the initiative to host refugees through their own means. Japan has taken its first timid steps in that direction. The numbers are still tiny, but if the model were to be fully implemented, they would grow. This year, nearly two-thirds of all refugees (19,000 out of 30,000) will arrive in Canada through private channels. This model has the potential to augment Japan’s refugee regime because it taps into the creative energy of civil society and the private sector. It could also offer a much-needed and innovative policy agenda for the region. We must also remember that in tackling refugee resettlement, it is crucial to consider the quality, not just the quantity, of relocations. This goes beyond the scope of my research, but it has been reported that privately sponsored refugees tend to integrate better than government-assisted refugees.

The argument by Japan and, more recently, European countries, too, in restricting refugee intake is concern about the “future form and the whole nation’s life” (Abe, quoted on p.9), and about national “security” (p.13). This reference to the “nation,” its rightful constituents, and its safety, is the rhetoric used by nations of every political dispensation to keep “outsiders” away. Does it particularly expose the hypocrisy of “liberal democracies” when the largest share of refugees is currently hosted by less liberal regimes?

It exposes the inherent tension within liberal democracy. This is the tension between the collective democratic will of a polity and the individual rights of its members and, ideally, outsiders as well. These virtues do not always mesh; often, they pull in opposite directions. In-migration, including refugee admission, exposes this paradox. As practice reveals, notwithstanding international obligations, the relocation of refugees to liberal democracies is constrained by domestic democratic processes. This is well exemplified by the recent political backlash against refugee resettlement across Europe. This is why private refugee sponsorship is a vital policy instrument in the current climate: It mitigates tension between the two ethical dispositions while increasing the potential to open borders wider.

Could it be argued that acceptance of refugees is often primarily a matter of geography—rather than of policy, or the “liberal democratic” nature of host nations? I refer to the Palestinians in Syria (now second-time refugees), Jordan and Lebanon; Afghans in Pakistan and Iran; Iraqis in Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans in Kenya and Uganda; Rohingyas in Bangladesh and Thailand; Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The world’s top refugee-hosting countries3 in 2018 were Turkey (3.5m), Uganda and Pakistan (1.4m), Lebanon (1m) and Iran (.98m), and none of them is “liberal democratic.”   

Naturally, hosting refugees is largely determined by geography. This is a simple consequence of the fact that large-scale uncontrolled refugee flows tend to occur in geographically clustered unstable regions. Asylum-seekers flee to neighboring countries within these regions. Many of these states are not even signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. However, affluent liberal democracies are expected to share this burden by resettling refugees stranded in refugee camps worldwide. Their subsequent responses, in terms of refugee intake, differ considerably. They do not share the burden evenly. This is why policy matters—and it matters critically. For instance, consider that the leading refugee resettlement countries (in per capita resettlement), such as Australia, Norway, Canada, and Sweden, are insulated from massive refugee crises. Their actions reflect principles enshrined in their policy frameworks. This highlights the importance of refugee policy, especially in affluent liberal democracies that are comfortably distant from major refugee flows. Japan is a case in point here.

Japan’s policy towards labor migrants has been inconsistent at best—less restrictive towards the “highly skilled” (p.6), and recently asking for “acceptance of low-skilled foreign workers” (p.14). This is probably a practical response to Japan’s peculiar demographic problem. Do you think there may be reduced government hostility to refugee intake mirroring the changing position on low-skilled migrants?

Japan’s foreign labor policy has been two-pronged, but fairly consistent over recent decades. It has been relatively open to highly skilled professionals, and even increasingly so since the early to mid-2010s. At the same time, it has ostensibly been closed to low-skilled workers, admitting them as needed through various side-door mechanisms. Confronted with demographic challenges, Japan’s official opening to blue-collar foreign laborers in April of this year constitutes a departure from the established policy trajectory. Japan’s approach to foreign labor has largely been pragmatic and reactive, and closely aligned with domestic public opinion. Interestingly, a majority of the Japanese public backed the recent policy shift in light of the nation’s persisting acute labor shortages.

Things are quite different when it comes to refugees. Japanese policy makers and the public do not perceive tangible benefits from admitting them in greater numbers; hence adherence to the long-lasting status quo. The perceived costs do in fact outweigh the potential benefits—and the recent turmoil in Europe only exacerbates these concerns. It remains to be seen whether Japan’s recent policy shift will have any impact on domestic attitudes toward refugees. For one, this shift shows that Japanese immigration policy is not immutable.


1. UNHCR, ‘Figures at a Glance’, Statistical Yearbooks, https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html accessed 1 May 2019.

2. Even the Canadian numbers (p.5), heroic as they are, seem inadequate: the number of Syrians admitted because of private or community sponsorship (18,000) amounts to 0.28% of the total 6.3m Syrian refugees.

3. Ibid. These numbers amount to 32.59% of the globe’s estimated 25.4m refugees.

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