October 31, 2015 / 4:51 PM / 4 years ago

Ex-U.N. refugee agency chief urges Japan to do more to help

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan, which accepted less than a dozen asylum seekers last year, should show more leadership on refugees and craft an immigration policy given its need for foreign workers, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said on Thursday.

Sadako Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks during an interview in Tokyo, October 29, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter -

Sadako Ogata, 88, whose great-grandfather, then-premier Tsuyoshi Inukai, was assassinated by radical naval officers in 1932, also said that while Japan’s military had a global role to play, it should not be one that involved fighting overseas.

Japan announced last month it would provide some $1.6 billion to assist Syrians and Iraqis displaced by conflict and for building peace across the Middle East and Africa.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe brushed off any suggestion that Japan - which had about 5,000 asylum seekers in 2014 - would take in refugees from the Syria conflict, the world’s worst migrant crisis since World War Two.

Ogata, without specifying the Middle East crisis, said Japan was not doing enough on the humanitarian front despite its desire for a bigger global political role.

“Japan has to set up a situation to welcome people ... not to welcome everybody, but those who are in need, in serious need and who are willing to come or would like to come,” Ogata, UNHCR chief from 1991-2000, told Reuters. “I think we should be open to bringing them in.”

She rejected the argument by many ruling politicians that Japan lacks capacity to cope with larger numbers of refugees.

“If refugees come in millions, that’s a different story, but the arrival rate is not that huge and (to say) Japan does not have resources, that’s nonsense,” she said.

Ogata said Japan’s cultural homogeneity tended to make people less open to refugees but ordinary Japanese would be more accepting if political leaders took the initiative.

“But if the top doesn’t work, and doesn’t give answers ... everything is not going to come from the bottom,” she said. “The leadership is key.”

Abe has said Japan should mobilize more women and older workers before opening up to immigrants, but Ogata said Japan needed a “proper migration policy”.

“Japan needs foreign workers. Without any ... can Japan survive?” she said.

Japan last month enacted laws that could allow its military to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two, but Ogata said she did not want to see troops fighting abroad.

“It’s not a fighting kind of role that I think Japan is going to play. We were a very strong military country, we fought the war and lost, okay?”

Editing by Nick Macfie

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