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FOCUS December 2015 Volume 82

Pilot Refugee Resettlement Program: Japan Experience

Saburo Takizawa

In the summer of 2009, the Japanese government requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to recommend ninety Karen refugees in Mae Lae camp in Thailand for resettlement in Japan. The government asked UNHCR to take into account the Japanese selection criteria: Karen refugee families (parents and dependent children, or nuclear families) in Mae La camp with capacity to adapt to the Japanese society and to get employed. The Mae La camp was chosen because it was the largest refugee camp in Thailand. The Karens constituted the majority of the residents in Mae La camp whose livelihood depended on agriculture. The Japanese government thought they would be able to adapt to the Japanese culture and customs without much difficulty. The family criterion was applied because, compared to single people, families were assumed to have less difficulty in adapting to Japanese society. 


 Thee-year Pilot Program

This was the start of a three-year pilot program on the resettlement of refugees from the refugee camps in Thailand. It set an initial quota of ninety refugees; thirty refugees were planned to be brought to Japan each year, for three years.

However, when the resettlement program was announced in Mae La camp, there was not much interest from the refugees and the planned thirty refugees for the first batch was not met after a round of interview of refugees. After a second round of interview was held, five families (consisting of twenty-seven adults and children) were eventually selected as the first group that would be resettled in Japan. The first group arrived in Japan on 28 September 2010.

The resettlement of the second group of refugees started in 2011. There was similar weak interest on the part of the refugees to resettle in Japan. They also heard about the difficulties in Japan faced by the first group of refugees. After two rounds of interview, six families were selected. But after being informed that the high cost of living in Japan required both husband and wife to work, two families decided not to join the second group just before departing for Japan in September 2011. Two women, one had a baby while another was pregnant, became uneasy about resettling in Japan. Only four families, consisting of eighteen people, arrived at Narita airport and were met by a smaller number of reporters and non-governmental organization (NGO) workers than in 2010. Despite knowledge of their arrival, none from the Burmese ethnic community was present to welcome the second group. This suggested the existence of difference of opinion on the program among the Burmese ethnic community in Japan.

The final group of refugees to be resettled in Japan was meant to arrive in 2012. Families (consisting of sixteen people) from two other refugee camps were selected but eventually withdrew. As a result, no refugees were resettled in Japan in 2012. The pilot resettlement program ended with only forty-five refugees involved as against the planned ninety refugees.

Support for the Refugee Resettlement Program

The government officials knew the value of a resettlement program in improving Japan’s image and identity. It was meant to be a concrete form of international responsibility/burden sharing and in line with the notion of human security, a major principle of the Japanese official development assistance (ODA). The program could dispel the long-held image of Japan as having an excessively restrictive refugee policy caused by stringent refugee status determination (RSD) procedures. Under the resettlement program, the government (through the Ministry of Justice or MOJ) could choose the refugees who were deemed better fit for resettlement in Japan and thus increase the number of refugees in the country without going through the complex and lengthy RSD process, including litigation. As for MOJ’s concern for security risks, the UNHCR would recommend for resettlement only those who have no security risks. Thus the MOJ would have nothing to lose by starting a resettlement program. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), which is responsible for economic and social activities including local administration and related tax systems, was opposed to the idea. The National Police Agency (NPA) was also not supportive as it was concerned about criminal activities by foreigners. There was, however, no hard proof that foreigners, including refugees, commit more crimes than Japanese nationals in relative terms. It was likely that the NPA stance reflected the government’s policy of reducing the number of foreigners without regular residence status.1 The Cabinet Secretariat, which chaired the Inter-Ministerial Working Group on Refugees Issues (IMWG), eventually managed the divergent views and interests, and succeeded in bringing a compromise agreement to start a small three-year pilot resettlement program.

Also, a shared view and consensus emerged among key decision-makers (political party leaders) and opinion leaders that it was high time for Japan to accept more refugees than before.

The editorials and reports in the mainstream media were very supportive of the resettlement idea with the proviso that the government had to provide resettled refugees with sufficient skills and language training as well as social integration support so that they could become members of the Japanese society as soon as possible, avoiding the repetition of the difficulties experienced by Indochinese refugees. Such urging encouraged government officials and parliamentarians, who considered media reports and editorials as reflective of popular thinking, to support the resettlement idea.

Causes of Program Problems

The primary concern of improving the image and identity of Japan in the international society through the refugee resettlement program led to the failure to take into serious account the refugees’ motivation for resettlement, and the inadequate assessment of their needs and capacities. The historical and political relations between Japan and Burma have also negatively affected the refugees’ selection of Japan as country of resettlement. Remembrance of the World War II experiences and Japan’s official development aid to the Burmese government that has oppressed them lessened the enthusiasm of the refugees on the program.

The refugees saw the criteria set by Japan as too restrictive and inflexible. The criteria were questionable compared to international standards. The criteria included the capacity to adapt to Japanese society and capacity to get employed to earn a living. These are not in line with the UNHCR policy that resettlement should not be determined on the basis of “integration potential” or other non-protection criteria. The UNHCR promotes resettlement for humanitarian reasons for those who need special protection when no other solutions are available. The criteria’s stress on cultural adaptability reflects the Japanese government’s wish to minimize social costs through rapid assimilation rather than integration. The employability criterion reflects the government’s wish to minimize cost.

The other criterion on nuclear families has problems.  It ignored the reality that refugees have extended families in the refugee camps. The criterion also restricts family reunification for those left behind in the refugee camps. And the resettlement of nuclear families does not necessarily mean less expensive than resettlement of individuals as it excludes young, single, ambitious and talented refugees who could adapt to Japan faster. Most of the families selected for the program have young children who would not be able to earn income until after five or ten years. The additional cost of supporting for them has to be provided instead by NGOs, local governments and the local communities.

The program does not have a mid- and long-term integration perspective. The six-month intensive orientation and settlement assistance program in Tokyo, for example, cannot address the refugees’ concern for stable employment, medical insurance, education of children, old age pension and permanent residency or naturalization that are necessary to make a life plan. The previous integration program with the Indochinese refugees in the 1970s was repeated without much improvement; and thus was used without considering the problems it brought to the Indochinese who resettled in Japan.

To minimize the integration problem, the government should listen to the voices of the refugees, both in the camps and in Japan, to understand their interests, expectations and concerns and social norms and should encourage them to participate in designing the integration support system.

On the whole, the Japanese program was biased towards material assistance (jobs, housing, cash assistance, etc.) while the psychological dimension was ignored until the problems started to emerge.

Finally, the government failed to provide support to the local governments that hosted the refugees especially for long-term integration program that cost them (local governments) significantly. Most local governments could not afford to provide additional services to refugees when their own citizens were suffering from economic difficulties.


The Japanese government’s decision to start a pilot resettlement program was a surprise to the humanitarian community. It was made by a small number of policy elites who realized that by responding to a call from the UNHCR, the criticism that Japan is a free-rider on the Global Refugee Regime could be addressed and its national interest in terms of reputational value would be promoted. However, domestic implementation of the program was much more difficult than many expected. Territorial protection of refugees in the form of resettlement does not necessarily offer human security for refugees unless a robust domestic integration support system is established. Such a system is a “national public product” to be co-produced by the government, local municipalities, civil society and the general public. Unfortunately, such a system does not yet exist in Japan as shown by the problems that form structural barriers. Due to the poor communication and information strategy adopted by the government, there are no shared interests among the supporters and the public at the local level. Rather than focusing on the technical “fixes” like selection criteria, the government should look at the big picture and address the problems.

The refusal by the three refugee families to come to Japan, or “Japan passing,” was a shock and a turning point for the pilot program that forced all concerned parties to reconsider the past approaches and re-examine hitherto untested assumptions and mindsets. However, there are also signs of hope. No doubt there are many individuals who have goodwill to help displaced refugees. Refugees and civil society are becoming more active than before.  The Japanese government has also changed its approach and increased transparency and communications with the civil society. If these genuine efforts continue, the pilot program has a chance to overcome the “birth pain” and one can even hope that the resettlement program will become one of the keys to “open the doors of Japan to the global society,” as Minister Nakagawa proudly mentioned on World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012.

Saburo Takizawa is a professor at the Toyo Eiwa University and a lecturer at the Graduate School of the International Christian University.

For more information, please contact: Saburo Takizawa, e-mail: saburo.takizawa@gmail.com.



1     The Ministry of Justice, National Police Agency and the city of Tokyo have been conducting a joint campaign to reduce the number of irregular stayers, which reduced their number from some 300,000 in 1993 to 78,000 in early 2012.  In the course of the campaign, a large number of asylum seekers (possibly refugees) who did not have regular visa status were arrested.  This is one of the reasons for the recent surge in the number of asylum claims in Japan. On crimes by foreigners see Okada, K. Gaikokujin to Hanzai [Foreigners and Crime], Reference, National Diet Library, 2007.

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