Japanese Civil Society Groups Helping Support Refugee Entrepreneurs

Japanese Civil Society Groups Helping Support Refugee Entrepreneurs

Japan is well-known for its hostility to immigration. Although the Japanese government has begun to open the doors to professionals, it doesn’t accept low skilled migrant workers (except on temporary work visas) and is very reluctant to receive refugees.

Japan’s closed-door policy was not affect by 2015’s refugee crisis. While countries like the United States, Canada, and Venezuela have received tens to thousands of asylum seekers, Japan announced that it will only take 150 Syrian students, and their families, in five years. Although this is a significant step forward, it is still far too few.

Japanese Contrasting Attitudes

Academics, media, and NGOs have all criticised the gap between Japan’s passive attitude to refugees and providing enough support and its proactive commitment beyond its borders.

Japan is a major donor to UN refugee agency. Prime Minister Shinzo abe announced a number of actions at the Leaders Summit in New York in September 2016, including US$2.8 billion for refugees and host communities. Despite this substantial financial commitment, the nation’s acceptance rate for refugees is extremely low (less than 1 percent of all applications in 2015).

Only 27 of the 3,898 Japanese asylum claims were granted last year. Eight asylum seekers appeal against the refusal to accept their claims in previous years were include in this figure. The total number of people granted special status to remain in Japan for humanitarian reasons is just over 100.

The ability to work is not restrict for refugees. However, asylum seekers cannot work if they have sought asylum and are legally resident in Japan.

People seeking asylum who have lost their travel documents are taken to an immigration detention center. Some might be grant temporary release or allow to remain outside the center. They are still unable work.

The Civil Society Takes Action

Due to the limitations of asylum seekers and refugees, Japanese businesses and civil society are slowly moving to accept refugees, and assist them in starting their own business.

Entrepreneurship Support Program for Refugee Empowerment (ESPRE) is a Tokyo-based non-profit organization that has grant microfinance refugee loans by the government. ESPRE, in partnership with Japan Association for Refugees and Social Venture Partners Tokyo provides support and business advice to refugees entrepreneurs and loans them up to a million yen ($8,800).

ESPRE has funded projects ranging from trading businesses to food services. An example: In 2012, ESPRE supported the opening of a Myanmar restaurant in Tokyo by a former Burmese university lecturer who sought asylum in Japan after more than 20 years.

Minami Masakazu, a Vietnamese refugee who fled her home in Japan as a teenager, was also help to open a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the capital. ESPRE also assisted a Pakistani entrepreneur to export used Japanese cars. His company started in Mozambique and has since expanded to other countries.

The idea of supporting refugees through entrepreneurship is also attractive to corporations. Uber Japan launched a campaign asking its customers to donate in 2014 to ESPRE. An anonymous tax accountant provides pro bono services for refugee entrepreneurs, according Masaru Yoshiyama, director of ESPRE.

Many Japanese Benefits

Researchers and practitioners who work with refugees have highlighted the positive effects. That entrepreneurship has on refugees and their host communities.

It empowers refugees in the first place. People can feel helpless and lost if they rely on government assistance. They can regain their independence and confidence by starting a business. Making money, and being a contributing member of their community.

ESPRE is a non-profit organization that helps Japanese entrepreneurs by funding projects and also lowers the language barrier. Japan is well-known for this. ESPRE hosts English-language orientation sessions in which accountants and business consultants explain how to operate a business in Japan.

It is also widely recognize that refugees can help boost local economies by creating jobs. For example, a Tokyo restaurant owner from Myanmar is now hiring students and refugees. Although this is not happening in Japan yet, refugees entrepreneurs often hire locals.

Furthermore, the engagement of refugees in self-generating activities can alter public perceptions that they are a societal burden. This reduces the negative sentiment towards refugees.