Japan has welcomed more than 1,800 evacuees since Russia’s war on Ukraine began more than six months ago, an unusual move for a country with a typically poor record of accepting asylum seekers.
On March 1, just five days after launching the invasion, Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa told senior immigration officials and others in his office that Japan “has a responsibility to act at this historic moment.”
Since then, the policy, announced the following day by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has been led by the ministry’s immigration service.
Then Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa (L) and his predecessor Yoko Kamikawa hold up the proposal to support Ukrainian evacuees at the Ministry of Justice in Tokyo on April 21, 2022. (TBEN)
An official recalled that Japan’s swift decision to allow people from Ukraine to use a government jet was something of an “unprecedented mission”, and interviews with those involved revealed that the initiative was being driven by the incumbent and previous justice ministers. .
In the immediate aftermath of the Russian attack, as many countries expressed solidarity with Ukraine, Japan was questioned which ministry would handle accepting people fleeing the war. A government official even said the State Department was “passive” on the matter.
It was then that House legislator and three-time former Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa went to the Prime Minister’s office to petition to accept the Ukrainians.
Like his predecessor, Furukawa also saw in the invasion a threat to the international rules-based order.
A liaison and coordination committee headed by the government’s top spokesman became the central command of the initiative, bringing together officials from different departments of immigration offices to create a project team.
But it was the arrival on April 5 of a government plane carrying Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and 20 evacuees from Poland that pushed the policy into the public consciousness.
A government plane carrying evacuees from Ukraine to Japan is seen after landing on the tarmac at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in April 2022. (TBEN)
The investigative visit that ended with the evacuation flight to Japan was originally conceived with Furukawa as special envoy, but he had to withdraw at 11 a.m. when a family member contracted the coronavirus.
When it came to actually planning the trip, the government also faced logistical and timing issues, some for the very first time, including over deploying a government jet to transport countless evacuees.
Still, a senior immigration official who reflected on the feeling as the plane returned to Tokyo’s Haneda airport said the moment was not particularly triumphant. “There were still a lot of people in danger, it was like it was just a checkpoint on the way,” the official said.
Meanwhile, at the Immigration Bureau’s new consultation desk for entities providing assistance to evacuees, private companies and local governments wishing to provide assistance lit the phones. The agency continues to assign evacuees without guarantors or individuals they can rely on in Japan with suitable matches.
“It was like being real estate agents,” said one official, referring to how government employees photographed the interiors of countless properties for evacuees to live in. Among the requests officials received about habitats were for “somewhere warm” and “a place without insects.”
On August 24, the government received 1,762 applications for assistance and successfully relocated 66 households, comprising 109 people, to places of their choice.
Ukrainian evacuees enter a hotel in Tokyo after arriving in Japan in April 2022. (TBEN)
But while Japan’s approach to supporting evacuees has been praised, the debate has now turned to the treatment of refugees, in part because Ukrainians are defined as evacuees, rather than being accepted under the Refugee Convention.
Japan’s acceptance rate for refugees is low, with only 74 people approved for the status in 2021.
In the Diet, politicians have questioned the government’s decision to allow Ukrainians to be evacuated, and questions have been raised as to why people from Myanmar were not receiving similar treatment after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected government in February 2021.
The government was initially expected to retable amendments to the immigration law at an extraordinary parliament session scheduled for the fall, but sources said earlier this month it would be postponed as more time is needed to flesh out the proposals.
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With the proposed legal revisions having been withdrawn once last year amid controversy over provisions on foreigners being held in detention centers and deportation for repeat applicants for refugee status, a passionate debate is expected when the changes are finally re-examined.
One of the expected changes is an additional protection system, a form the European Union uses to give Ukrainians residence and employment rights in member states without making them refugees.
A senior Justice Department official said the government is working to clarify standards for refugee admission, and suggested the international situation could inform future debate.
“In light of an unforeseen event in Taiwan and what else could happen, I hope this can be an opportunity to understand the need to set up a system for accepting evacuees,” he said. a senior official of the Ministry of Justice.