Japanese civil society groups support refugee entrepreneurs despite government

Even 2015’s so-called refugee crisis didn’t change Japan’s closed-door policy. While countries like the United States and Canada accepted tens of thousands of asylum seekers, Japan announced that it would only take 150 Syrian “students” and their families over five years. Although this is a significant step for the country, it is still too little.

Contrasting attitudes

NGOs, as well as the media, have all criticized Japan for its passive attitude and lack of proactive support outside its territory.

Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, announced that the country was one of the largest donors to the UN Refugee Agency. He also announced a number of initiatives, including US$2.8 billion for refugees and host communities, at the Leaders’ Summit, held in New York in September 2016. The nation’s acceptance rate of refugees is low, with less than 1% (of total applications) in 2015.

Only 27 of the 3,898 asylum applications processed in Japan were recognized as refugees. Eight asylum seekers appealed against the government’s refusal to accept their claims in the previous year. The total number of people granted special status in Japan for humanitarian reasons is just over 100.

Refugees can work without restrictions. Asylum seekers, however, can only work in Japan if they apply for asylum legally.

Immigration detention centers are used to hold people who have applied for asylum but whose travel documents have expired. Some people may be released on a conditional basis or allowed to remain outside the center. They are still ineligible to work.

Civil society takes action.

As a result of the many institutional obstacles that refugees and asylum seekers face, Japanese businesses and civil society are working to assist refugees in gaining acceptance by helping them set up their own businesses.

The government has authorized the Tokyo-based Entrepreneurship Program for Refugee Empowerment to microfinance refugee entrepreneurs. ESPRE, in partnership with Japan Association for Refugees and Social Venture Partners Tokyo, provides refugee entrepreneurs with loans of up to a thousand yen ($8,800) and additional business advice.

ESPRE has financed a wide range of projects, from food services to trading companies. In 2012, a former Burmese university lecturer who had sought asylum in Japan, and lived there for more than 20 years, opened a Myanmar Restaurant in Tokyo, with ESPRE’s support.

Minami Masakazu is a Vietnamese refugee who fled her home when she was a teenager and opened a popular Vietnamese restaurant in this city . ESPRE also assisted a Pakistani entrepreneur who runs a company that exports used Japanese cars. His business started out targeting the Mozambican Market, but has since expanded to other countries.

Minami Masakazu, with the help of ESPRE/ESPRE Author provided

The idea of entrepreneurship as a way to help refugees is also appealing to corporations. Uber Japan launched a campaign in 2014 to encourage its customers to donate money to ESPRE. According to Masaru Yoshiyama, the director of ESPRE, an anonymous tax accounting firm provides free services to refugee business owners.

There are many benefits

Academics and practitioners who work with refugees have both highlighted the positive effects that entrepreneurship has on refugees as well as their host societies.

It empowers refugees in the first place. People can easily feel helpless if they are dependent on government benefits. They can regain confidence and autonomy by managing their own business, earning money, and contributing to their host community.

ESPRE, for example, helps them not only by funding projects but by lowering the language barriers that Japan is known for. ESPRE offers English-language sessions in which business consultants and accountants provide information on how to operate a business within Japan.

It is also widely acknowledged that refugees can help boost local economies through employment. For example, a Myanmar restaurant owner in Tokyo hires refugees and students. Although this hasn’t happened yet in Japan, refugees elsewhere often hire local.

Protesters in central Tokyo, 9 September 2015, at a rally calling for visas for asylees in Japan. Yuya Shino/Reuters

The public’s perception of refugees as “burden” can be changed by their participation in economic activities that generate income for themselves. It reduces the negative perception of refugees.

Remaining challenges

There are still a few barriers to facilitating refugee entrepreneurs in Japan.

First, there is a shortage of resources. The first is a lack of resources.

ESPRE Director Yoshiyama told me this had hindered a more organized process of assistance. This included everything from the assessment of business proposals to the support of implemented projects.

The inflexibility of institutions is another obstacle. Asylum seekers are only allowed to work in strict conditions. The rules assume that asylum seekers are employees, not employers or self-employed. This can lead to confusion and increase their administrative burden, as officials might not approve them to start a new business.

In Japan, the low level of visibility for refugees and undocumented workers is a major challenge. Despite the fact that the recent refugee crises have raised the public’s awareness of the issue, it is still perceived as a problem outside Japan. This perception does not help the situation of refugee entrepreneurs.

We should not forget that refugee entrepreneurship does not work. Many refugees are children and vulnerable individuals who may not have the ability to engage in any economic activity. Entrepreneurship for refugees is a great alternative to help them gain independence and integrate into their host countries.

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