“No one wants to become a refugee”

On a chilly and rainy day in Tokyo, three non-profit leaders discussed their work and their passion for supporting refugees and asylum seekers both in Japan and around the world at Sophia University. This was my first forum in Japan. I have attended several, maybe dozens of such talks abroad, but this evening spent at the Yotsuya Campus was somehow special. I am used to being one of the few lost souls listening to such speeches, but it turned out I wasn’t the only one. Indeed, many students from different continents attended this event. I bet they were forced to. I was – positively – shocked.

Before my internship at RIJ, little did I know about refugees, IDPs, and asylum seekers in Japan, not to mention other Asian countries. If you’re European, just like me, you tend to think that you’re the hub of the universe. The refugee topic is quite often a headliner in the European news, but the focus is rather on the Middle East, sometimes Africa. These regions are in the spotlight because obviously people from ‘there’ come to ‘us’. I did not know that Asia hosts most of the world’s people of concern. In terms of refugees and migration, Asia is the hub of the universe.

The three non-profit leaders, one of whom represented RIJ, delivered profound speeches featuring different figures, individual stories, and exclusive insights. They shared their knowledge, feelings, dropped some wisdom, uttered critique, but also hope. The students heard out every single speaker. Still, I was wondering who in the world would flee their country and seek for asylum in Japan? This weird country, far away from Asia’s mainland, consisting of more than 6.800 islands. One figure: Japan accepted 28 refugees last year. That’s roughly 0,004117 refugees per island!

Two individual stories (a couple from Nepal and a woman from Ethiopia) highlighted why people flee to Japan. It seems that in terms of reaching a safe country, any feasible option is better than staying at home where people would suffer, starve, be prosecuted, get beaten or even get killed. Japan is – despite its exclusive culture, difficult language, and not to mention the unusually strict immigration policies – a safe haven. A very safe haven.

Something that left a strikingly positive impression on me and the other students was the ‘Call for Action’. Listening to great, and sometimes boring, speeches is only the first step of showing your support. The final thought-provoking questions posed in that very room touched upon being proactive, rather than just listening and nodding one’s head – how can you show your support? How can you contribute in your local community? It’s up to you.

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