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Japanese civil society groups are helping support refugee entrepreneurs, despite government reluctance

A fundamental challenge in Japan, in particular, is the low visibility of refugees and undocumented migrant workers. Stephan Geyer/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Japanese civil society groups are helping support refugee entrepreneurs, despite government reluctance

Japan is known for its negative attitude to immigration. While the door has been slowly opened to professionals, the Japanese government doesn’t accept low-skilled migrant workers – except on temporary work visas – and has been very reluctant to welcome refugees.

Even 2015’s so-called refugee crisis didn’t change Japan’s closed-door policy. Whereas countries such as the United States, Canada and Venezuela have accepted tens of thousands of asylum seekers, Japan has announced it will take only 150 Syrian “students” and their families in five years. Though this is an important step forward for the country, the number is still far too small.

Contrasting attitude

The gap between Japan’s passive attitude towards accepting refugees and providing sufficient support, and its proactive commitment outside its own territory has been much criticised by NGOs, the media and academics.

Japan is one of the top donors to the UN refugee agency and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a series of actions, including the provision of US$2.8 billion to refugees and hosting communities, at the Leaders’ Summit in New York in September 2016. Despite this significant financial commitment, the nation’s refugee acceptance rate is very low (less than 1% of total applications in 2015).

Of 3,898 asylum claims processed in Japan last year, only 27 were recognised as refugees. This figure included eight asylum seekers who appealed the government’s decision not to accept their claim in previous years. Add to this the 79 people who were granted special status to stay in Japan on humanitarian grounds, and the total reaches just over 100.

Refugees are able to work without restriction. But asylum seekers can only work if they sought asylum while staying in Japan legally.

People who seek asylum after their travel documents have expired are taken to an immigration detention centre. Some may be provisionally released or be permitted to stay outside the centre. But they are still unable to work.

Civil society steps in

In light of the institutional constraints facing refugees and asylum seekers, Japanese civil society and businesses are gradually moving to help refugees gain acceptance, by assisting them in setting up their own business.

The Tokyo-based nonprofit organisation, Entrepreneurship Support Program for Refugee Empowerment (ESPRE), is the first public interest foundation that the government has authorised to microfinance refugees. In partnership with the Japan Association for Refugees and Social Venture Partners Tokyo, ESPRE loans up to a million yen (about US$8,800) to refugee entrepreneurs and provides additional support with business advice.

The types of projects ESPRE has financed range from food services to trading businesses. For instance, a Burmese former university lecturer, who sought asylum in Japan and has lived in the country for over 20 years, opened a Myanmar restaurant in Tokyo with ESPRE’s support in 2012.

And Vietnamese refugee, Minami Masakazu, who left home as a teenager, was similarly helped to open a now popular Vietnamese restaurant in the city. ESPRE has also helped a Pakistani entrepreneur who runs a trading company to export used Japanese cars. His business began targeting the Mozambican market and has now expanded to other countries.

Minami Masakazu opened a Vietnamese restaurant in Tokyo with ESPRE’s help/ ESPRE, Author provided

Corporations also seem to like the idea of helping refugees through entrepreneurship. Uber Japan, for instance, launched a campaign in 2014 for its customers to donate to ESPRE and an anonymous tax accountancy provides pro bono services to refugee entrepreneurs, according to ESPRE’s director, Masaru Yoshiyama.

All kinds of benefits

Academics and practitioners working with refugees have pointed out the positive effects of entrepreneurship on both refugees and their host societies.

In the first place, it empowers refugees. It’s easy for people to feel helpless and lose confidence if they have to rely on government allowances. These people can regain their autonomy and confidence by managing a business, earning money and engaging with their host community as a contributor.

Organisations such as ESPRE don’t only help them by financing projects but also by lowering the language barrier, for which Japan is notorious. To this end, ESPRE holds English-language orientation sessions where business consultants and accountants explain how to run a business in the country.

It has also been widely recognised that refugees can boost the local economy by creating employment opportunities. The Myanmar restaurant owner in Tokyo, for example, is hiring refugees and students. Though this has not yet happened in Japan, refugee entrepreneurs elsewhere often employ locals.

Protesters at a rally to call for visas for asylum seekers in Japan, in central Tokyo on September 9 2015. Yuya Shino/Reuters

What’s more, refugees’ engagement in self-generating economic activities can change the public perception that they’re a “societal burden”. This lessens negative public sentiment towards refugees.

Remaining challenges

Despite these benefits, a number of barriers remain for facilitating refugee entrepreneurship in Japan.

The first is a lack of resources. Unlike countries where the number of refugees is large and the infrastructure to support refugee entrepreneurs (or minority entrepreneurs more broadly) has already been set up, efforts in Japan are still in early stages, and personnel and financial capacity is limited.

ESPRE director Yoshiyama has told me that this has hindered the setting up of a more organised process of assistance, from assessment of business proposals to support for implemented projects.

Institutional inflexibility is also a hurdle. Asylum seekers can only work under strict conditions. And the rules are made under the assumption that they work as an employee rather than as an employer, or being self-employed. This can create unnecessary misunderstanding and add to their administrative burden as officials may not give them approval to set up a new business.

A fundamental challenge in Japan, in particular, is the low visibility of refugees and undocumented migrant workers. Though the recent refugee crisis has drastically raised public awareness, the issue is still perceived in Japan as something happening somewhere outside the country. This perception doesn’t help improve the situation for refugee entrepreneurs.

Last but not least, we should bear in mind that refugee entrepreneurship is not a panacea. Many refugees are minors and vulnerable people, who may not be able to engage in economic activity. Refugee entrepreneurship should rather be regarded as an – excellent – alternative for helping refugees gain autonomy and become integrated in their host country.