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Editorial: Japan should expand support for foreign evacuees escaping horrors abroad

More than 8 million people in Ukraine, or roughly 20% of the country's population, fled to European nations after Russian troops began pouring into the country.

    So far, 2,351 of these evacuees have made their way to Japan. The Japanese government has granted them a residency status allowing them to work, and quickly established a support system. In addition to helping them learn Japanese and find employment, those who do not have a guarantor are provided with a temporary place to stay and living expenses. Local governments and organizations are also providing support.

    But the end of the war is nowhere in sight. The Ukrainians' prolonged evacuation has brought to light a variety of challenges.

    According to Japan's labor ministry, only 396 Ukraine evacuees had found jobs here as of last month. Many of the Ukrainians in Japan have qualifications and expertise, but it is apparently difficult for them to find work where they can make use of them.

    In many cases, mothers fled with their children, and they are worried about their offspring's schooling and higher education. An evacuee woman living with her 14-year-old son said, "My boy is exhausted from attending school in Japan and taking online classes at a Ukrainian school as well."

    Assume a prolonged evacuation and respond accordingly

    Mental health care is also important. There are those who have lost family members, those who have been traumatized by memories of the war, and those who feel guilty that they are alone in a safe place.

    In a survey conducted by the Nippon Foundation, nearly 70% of the evacuees said that they sometimes have trouble sleeping, and 60% complained of feeling lonely.

    Yuria Yokoyama of the National Council of YMCAs of Japan, which supports the evacuees, said, "Many problems have become evident, such as worsening chronic illnesses among middle-aged and elderly evacuees, and isolation for those living alone." It is essential to create a system that enables meticulous support considering the prolonged evacuation.

    The people of Ukraine are not the only ones facing hardships in Japan. More than 800 people have fled to Japan from Afghanistan, where the Taliban reclaimed power in August 2021.

    In February 2022, the Japanese government decided to grant residency status allowing work to evacuees from Afghanistan, but only if they had a guarantor. There was no special support for learning Japanese, work or educating children.

    It was not until last summer that 98 Afghans, including ex-employees of the Japanese Embassy in Kabul, were recognized as refugees. Once certified as refugees, they are eligible for a six-month official resettlement assistance program. However, only a little over 140 Afghans were certified last year.

    Reiko Ogawa, a professor at Chiba University who has been supporting Afghan evacuees, points out that, "Many of them would have been able to prepare to be self-reliant if they had received official support for settling in Japan early."

    Those who have studied abroad or highly educated women are at risk of persecution in the Taliban's Afghanistan. Many want to remain in Japan, but there are limits to the support offered by universities and private organizations.

    Ogawa emphasizes, "It's necessary for society to provide wide-ranging support in cooperation with local governments and businesses."

    Japan's response to the Myanmar people who could not return home after the military coup two years ago also remains insufficient.

    Regardless of nationality, we must extend a helping hand to those who are in danger if they return to their home countries.

    No borders in humanitarian crises

    There are moves among Ukrainian evacuees in Japan to support each other.

    Yuliia Bernatska, 49, who fled to Japan with the help of her son already living here, is collecting supplies for her fellow evacuees. She helps other displaced women acquire IT skills and find jobs in Japan, making use of her own experience running an IT company back home.

    She hopes to expand the scope of her activities to include other nationalities plus Japanese locals. She says that contributing to society is her way of life, and that she would like to do her best to help women improve their careers.

    In some cases, evacuees who have worked as psychological counselors are now giving advice to other evacuees. The desire to help someone and also to be needed motivates people to live positively. We would like to encourage such support trends throughout society.

    The acceptance of Ukrainian evacuees has created momentum to support foreigners in many areas of Japan. Some activities are proceeding with plenty of trial and error, so sharing the know-how is essential.

    Last May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution had surpassed 100 million worldwide.

    "Saving lives is the top priority. What is the point of the border?" These are the words of Sadako Ogata, who once served as the U.N. refugee chief.

    It is only natural for people to help those in distress. Japan should further expand the system to support them.

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