Japan embraces Ukraine refugees in break from past conflicts

People take part in a fundraising demonstration to support Ukraine in Tokyo's Shinjuku district on March 26, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan is dispatching an official jet usually reserved for the emperor and prime minister to ferry Ukrainian refugees to Tokyo, an unprecedented move that highlights the red-carpet treatment being offered to those fleeing Russia's invasion.

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi is set to fly to Poland in a 150-seater Boeing 777 government jet on Friday (April 1), the government's chief spokesman said.

The plane was then expected to be used to fly refugees back to Tokyo, according to national public broadcaster NHK and other media.

The country has already accepted 325 refugees from Ukraine in less than a month. While that is a tiny fraction of the millions who have fled, it is still more than the total number of refugees Japan has allowed for the past seven years from all over the world.

Some say they hope the refugee policy will also set a precedent for allowing entry to more displaced people in the future.

"The government has long said that the public doesn't approve of taking in refugees," said Mr Norimasa Orii, who heads Pathways Japan, a group that supports refugees re-settling in the country. "But now they themselves have proved that's not true. It's an enormous development."

The welcome for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression is part of a show of unity with the United States and Europe in a conflict that Japan sees as influencing China's calculus over potential actions around Taiwan and disputed East China Sea isles.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has already moved rapidly to impose sanctions on Russia in line with its only military ally, the US, while Mr Hayashi is set to become the first Japanese foreign minister to take part in a meeting of Nato foreign ministers next week.

The acceptance of the refugees has almost unanimous support from the public, after extensive domestic media coverage of the devastation caused by the war, and TV programmes showing tearful Ukrainians being reunited with family members in Japan.

A survey carried out by the Nikkei newspaper on March 25 to 27 found that 90 per cent of respondents said refugees should be admitted, with only 4 per cent opposing. Support for Mr Kishida's Cabinet rose 6 percentage points on the previous month.

That contrasts with the one of the world's most homogeneous countries' eagerness to close its doors to foreigners during its worst wave of the pandemic, despite what economists say is a need for more workers to support the ageing population.

Japan had just over 1.7 million foreign workers last year, the bulk of them from Vietnam and China.

Mr Kishida announced the Ukraine refugee policy on March 2 after a phone call with Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki, saying the doors would be open initially to those with family or friends in Japan. He told Parliament on Thursday that Japan would offer support with accommodation, work and study, and had set aside more than 500 million yen (S$5 million) for related expenses. Local governments, non-profit organisations and universities have also pitched in to help.

Japan's experience with refugees began with the arrival by boat of people fleeing wars in Vietnam and Cambodia starting in the 1970s. It eventually accepted about 11,000 asylum-seekers from the Indochina region, many of them becoming long-term residents. In 1981, Japan signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

Yet in the subsequent years, the country has set a high bar for refugee status, accepting only a small proportion of those who apply. In 2020, that amounted to just 47 people, though another 44 were allowed to stay under a separate asylum status, with applications down about 60 per cent on the previous year to 4,000. That compares with about 13,000 refugees recognised in Britain in the year to March 2020.

The application process in Japan takes an average of more than four years, according to the Japan Association for Refugees. Japan does have a track record of taking in limited numbers of people from troubled regions separately from its recognition of refugees, including as students.

Those fleeing from Ukraine this time are being dubbed "evacuees" rather than refugees, to make clear they are being admitted under a separate framework.

Ms Ayako Niijima of the Japan Association for Refugees, expressed concern about those from Ukraine getting speedier support and different treatment, compared with needy people from other countries.

"What I want to highlight is that it's not only Ukrainians who are in this kind of situation," she said.

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