Japan is set to welcome about 300 Syrian refugees comprising study-abroad students and their families over the next five years, the most to date in the current Middle Eastern refugee crisis.
However, the number still falls far short of other nations that have already welcomed tens of thousands displaced from the Middle Eastern nation ravaged by civil war.
The government plans to accept 20 Syrians annually who are taking refuge in Lebanon and Jordan through the Japan International Cooperation Agency from 2017 through 2021 as students. With the students allowed to bring their spouses and children, the agency reached the estimated total of 300.
The first 20 Syrians and their families are scheduled to land in Japan this summer.
Unlike most other study-abroad programs in Japan, the students will not be required to return to their home countries immediately after finishing their studies. They will be given support to find jobs in Japan, effectively granting them and their family members the possibility of settling in Japan.
“Although the purpose of the program is to develop human resources who will return to their home country to take charge of reconstruction efforts, telling them to go home right after graduation is something that won’t be happening, considering the current state of Syria,” said a JICA official.
In addition, each student will be provided 140,000 yen ($1,240) every month, along with a payment of 13,000 yen for their spouse and 6,500 yen for each child.
This is the first time that Japan has instituted a new refugee admission program since 2010, when the nation started accepting asylum seekers from Myanmar. A total of 123 Myanmar refugees have been received so far.
The first time the nation accepted refugees on a large scale was in the late 1970s with the wave of Indochina refugees from war-torn Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, more than 10,000 of which were received by Japan by 2005.
The government announced last May that it will be accepting 150 Syrian refugees over a five-year period through the JICA program and the education ministry’s Japanese Government (Monbukagakusho) Scholarship program, which will receive 10 foreigners per annum.
The move was made to demonstrate to other countries that Japan, too, was willing to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis as the host nation of the 2016 Group of Seven summit meeting that was held in Shima, Mie Prefecture, soon afterward.
Since then, the government had been looking for applicants and institutions that would accept the students in the two programs.
Having recognized only 27 people as refugees in 2015, Japan has been criticized for its reluctance to accept those seeking asylum, especially when such turmoil was ongoing in the Middle East.
With 4.8 million Syrians estimated to have taken refuge in neighboring countries since the civil war began, many Western nations have opened their arms to the asylum seekers through third-country resettlement programs.
The United States, Canada, Germany and Britain had all received Syrian refugees by the tens of thousands as of the end of 2016, according to data published by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Taking refugees as students is probably a compromise. Japan understands very well the need to do something for the Syrians,” said Dirk Hebecker, UNHCR representative in Japan. “But maybe it is still not ready to take Syrians on resettlement, to have them live here permanently. This initiative is very valuable, so we’re very happy that Japan started it.”
Junichi Akashi, an associate professor of global governance at the University of Tsukuba, said: “With possibilities of settling in Japan, the program is a landmark approach toward the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. Unfortunately, the number of refugees it accepts is far too low. I hope the latest program will be defined as a pilot project, gradually expanding the number of successful applicants.”