The Chairperson’s Message

Considerations on the Refugee Issue and the Significance of the Refugee Studies Forum


Hiroshi Homma


Although global awareness of human rights issues has increased, the human rights of countless people all over the world continue to be violated through oppression. This oppression, from which “any common person would feel pain,” drains people of their dignity. It is often so cruel that it amounts to the level of persecution. Many people who endure these harsh conditions are forced to flee their country and enter another as a refugee, or struggle to survive as internally displaced persons (IDPs), wandering from place to place for seeking a marginally safer region within their own country. Such people’s hope for salvation is in the good will and assistance of the international community, unless improvements in the regime of their country of origin are realized and the root causes of their oppression are eliminated.


However, unfortunately, it remains the principle of our international community that the responsibility to protecting refugees lies solely with the country in which they first arrive. Occasionally, refugees staying in one country can be resettled in another, but resettlement is not always undertaken, and only by some state parties. In the general international community, there is no established principle of international burden sharing between countries to protect refugees. The basic framework of the international community – the coexistence of sovereign states – is truly convenient in that it allows each country to focus on its national interests while shutting its eyes to the hardships other countries bear in accepting massive influxes of refugees.
The principle of independence from other countries, or better put, the principle of noninterference in internal affairs of other countries, which is directly derived from the doctrine of the sovereignty of states, allows the power of the reigning side to refuse aid from UN organizations and foreign countries for IDPs who cannot leave their home country and is conveniently used as a pretext to ignore or decline efforts from the outside to stop internecine armed conflicts and eliminate the causes of strife.
Moreover, as the economic globalization increases, the sovereign state system has played a role in widening the gap between rich and poor both between countries and within countries, with the richer countries perpetuating economic gap with other less wealthy countries. In impoverished countries, politically powerful individuals, or an extremely small ruling class, aggressively monopolize the wealth of the country. Power- or arms-related clashes between racial and religious groups over the forced appropriation or the distribution of scarce resources have been the frequent causes of refugee exodus or forced displacement of IDPs. As yet, no one has been able to formulate a plan for the international community to respond to deep-seated economic deprivation, the underlying cause driving refugee exodus and internal forced migration under the constraints of the doctrinal framework of sovereign states existing side-by-side.
Although we are constrained by the doctrine of sovereign states, there is no mistaking that part of the impetus for the protection of refugees is the humanitarianism espoused when the international refugee protection system was established. But, that is not our only motivation at present. We are also inspired and motivated by a key that is the light penetrating the darkness, a key outlined in the Preamble of the Japanese Constitution. It reads: “We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.” Protecting people fleeing from “fear and want” is not just based in humanitarianism; it is an imperative that each and every one of us pledges to uphold through the Preamble of our Constitution. We recognize the right of all people, not only Japanese, to live in peace free from “fear and want”. Therefore “we desire to occupy an honored place in an international society,” and are committed to aggressively engaging the international aid community. However, even in academia, most seem to have forgotten the positive meaning of this Preamble pledge.
But this pledge has such a positive relation to the refugee problem. If we expand our focus from this perspective, then our first duty as per the Constitution is protecting refugees who have come to Japan fleeing from the “fear and want” that threatened their lives. Second, we should not just protect refugees who have reached Japan, but we should also protect refugees and IDPs in other countries as well. Third, we must be aware that violations of fundamental human rights are the cause of the international flight of refugees and the domestic displacement of others. But even that is not enough. We must also pay attention to the fact that extreme economic deprivation and internal conflicts too are causes of forced displacement.
The more we look at the refugee issue, the larger it grows. For example, one age-old problem is the lack of considerations for the life of refugee applicants. Most refugee applicants have illegally entered the host country, or are illegal residents, and so are in violation of immigration control. Immigration control policies regarding the legal status of refugee applicants should go beyond the narrow view of immigration control and instead try to protect the dignity of persons.
It is vital for refugee status determination procedures to properly consider the conditions in the refugee’s country of origin, especially in the specific region within the country that the refugee is from, as the applicant’s home country may be in a state of constant flux. Even through diplomatic missions it can be difficult to obtain this kind of regional information. The field of Area Studies is expected to increase the availability and understanding of such information. Work to gather and analyze the much needed regional information could invigorate Area Studies in return.
Another vital issue is methods to understand an applicant’s psychological state, and methods to include evaluation of their psychological state in refugee status determination procedures.
Regarding acceptance of refugees into society, an anthropological investigation that focuses on how different cultures can co-exist peacefully and blossom is also needed, instead of one that merely considering the laws and policies affecting the status of refugees through citizenship or permanent residency.
Finally, it is essential that we look into uncovering the causes of the forced migration of refugees and IDPs, as well as into solutions that address these causes. The search for such solutions will require discussions that confront the challenges presented by the doctrine of sovereign states while simultaneously transcending them. We will need analysis from various political, economic, historical, and cultural aspects, as well as the ability to converge their ideas on eliminating the causes.
The refugee problem needs discussion from diverse viewpoints as just described. But so far, research from legal standpoints has been at the vanguard in Japan, with jurisprudence playing the role of the hammer that strikes down barriers to refugee status determination procedures.
We occasionally see research reports from non-legal disciplines that attract attention. But these reports remain disjointed, with no social framework in place to tie them together and connect the discussions stemming from them. Therefore, research on the problems of refugees has not expanded into a multidisciplinary approach yet. We now recognize the need for multidisciplinary research addressing refugee issues, thanks largely to the practical experience of NGOs and NPOs which have long engaged in aid activities for refugees and refugee applicants.
Yet, while we are feeling the stirrings of fresh, vibrant discussions, they have been faint at best: discussions have not exactly been active on the face of research into the refugee problem. In fact, they even run the risk of disappearing altogether. What is the cause of this negativity? Seeing many undergraduate and graduate students are interested in the refugee issue, it is hard to explain why fewer and fewer researchers devote any effort to the subject.
Here is what I think: the root of the problem is society’s lack of interest in refugee issues. Since society lacks interest in the topic, there is little research into the topic which results in the stagnation of research activity in general. This situation also resulted from our forgetfulness of our Constitutional pledge as mentioned previously. However, now that refugee applicants from around the world are finding their way to Japan in greater numbers and that the government is showing its willingness to open its doors to third country resettlement, Japan should not keep the past negativity towards refugees, nor is it able to do so any longer.
Another reason may be that society has not constructed a permanent framework for the continuous, consistent support of research on the issues relating to refugees, and in some cases for providing stimulus on the research side. In the past, research seminars were mainly held by academics and lawyers. Quite a few number of lively research presentations and discussions were first arranged by the late University of Tokyo professor Yuichi Takano and then by the former Meiji University President Shigeki Miyazaki. Research reports are also presented in workshops at the Peace Studies Association of Japan. But these meetings have not been permanent and systematic. Thus, young researchers in particular could not have conviction in the future of refugee studies, and this situation may have resulted in diminishing ardor for this research.
To address these issues, we have established the Refugee Studies Forum to support the development of refugee studies in Japan, to above all provide an opportunity to present and publish studies on refugee related issues through seminars and journals. In the future, with the proper funding we hope to provide financial support to young scholars and researchers in this field.
We also hope to create opportunities to bring together research from different disciplines and from different perspectives. Our aim is not to merely give endless presentations on issues arising from multidisciplinary research exchanges, nor to strip the uniqueness of the research from each discipline through these exchanges. Rather, we hope to create a forum where scholars and researchers are encouraged to confirm their findings, to further pursue and to expand their uniqueness through exposure to studies from different disciplines. Just as the connection between countless synapses stretching between brain cells creates new areas of activity in the brain, we expect that through research exchanges among different disciplines, new fields of research and new research methods will be born. We assume that this will be possible if participants are willing to accept multidisciplinary feedback on their research and presentations at the exchanges, and approach these exchanges organically with a spirit of mutual understanding.
The Forum will also be more than just a venue to support research on issues relating to refugees, and more than just a venue for multidisciplinary exchange: we will initiate investigations and research into both international and domestic refugee protection, and make these results available to both Forum members and society at large. To this end, we will participate in international conferences, send personnel out into the field, and publish our results in research and investigative journals.
The Forum will also gather information from both within Japan and around the world on the refugee issue, and ensure that researchers, members of the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, lawyers and others in the legal field, refugees/refugee applicants themselves, journalists, and a wide range of other parties will have access to it. We recognize there is a the need for a reference area and reading space, but due to our current financial, spatial, and personnel constraints we are unable to address this need at this time. But the Forum will at least provide some link to the information for those who would like to use it. We will establish relationships with overseas groups, and we are working on forming networks with other concerned parties.
Putting aside these limits for now, as touched on above the country of origin information, especially on conditions in specific regions within countries is indispensable for refugee status determination procedures. We must cooperate with and deepen our relationships with Area Studies specialists and specialist organizations. For this purpose we will routinely build networks both within and outside Japan with specialists and specialist institutions.
In the case law of other countries, the development of international human rights laws has been incorporated into the interpretation of the refugee concept under the Refugee Convention. The interpretation of the refugee concept is also influenced by such concepts as the principle of non-refoulement under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and persecution under the Statutes for International Criminal Courts. Thus, we see the application of the refugee concept is responsive to principles and statutes based on international legal instruments subsequent to the Refugee Convention, as well as to the application of the principles and statutes. But there is more. As we can see from examples where people refuse to be forced to take part in indiscriminate terrorist acts and flee are recognized as refugees, they show their willingness to regard indiscriminate terrorism as acts violating the “aims and principles of the U.N.,” and have added the protection of people at risk of being forced to commit these acts as within the scope of the aims of refugee protection under the Refugee Convention. In the past, Japanese case law has narrowly interpreted the law relating to refugees, but these new trends in the application of the refugee concept in foreign case law merits serious attention. We aim to gather noteworthy foreign case law and provide access to it.
We need comprehensive information to support the lives and proper treatment of refugee applicants, as well as to socially integrate those who have been granted refugee status or have arrived through third country resettlement. We are collecting reports on these experiences from countries with a history of accepting refugees, and are organizing links to the reports to make them accessible.
We are also arranging access to noteworthy articles and books from overseas on the refugee issue, as well as information on reports regarding the condition of refugees in foreign countries. We are looking into not only presenting this information on the Web, but also providing Japanese translations where possible. We would especially like to translate basic UNHCR materials when not already translated in Japanese.
We fervently hope for the cooperation and participation of researchers studying issues related to refugees from every point of view, lawyers and others in the legal field, members of the national executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, members of local governmental organizations, refugees, refugee applicants, journalists, and people from all walks of life.