Many news articles use the words refugees, migrants and asylum seekers when reporting on the movement of people. Japan Times headline this morning – “Japan to limit work permits for asylum seekers from 2018” – talks about asylum seekers who file for refugee status in order to work as immigrants in the country. The number of applications has jumped from 1,202 in 2012 to nearly 17,000 in 2017. But only 28 people were recognized as refugees in 2016, causing much international criticism that Japan is closed to refugees.
On the other hand, Japan has over one million foreign workers who are referred to as “Immigrants”. Are these workers really “Immigrants” or “Migrants”?. What’s the difference? Or is there?
According to L.A. Times reporter Alexandra Zavis, who covers the crisis in Europe, explains the difference.
“Migrant is a broad term that includes refugees and those moving for economic reasons. Reporters use this term in Europe because many people in crisis are still on the move, and some of them may wish to return home one day. Immigrant refers to those who have moved to a foreign country with the intention of settling there.”
In the case of Japan, the ruling party holds that emphasis should be placed on Japanese women and elderly to work first before accepting immigrants, but policymakers are exploring ways to bring in more foreign workers without calling it “immigration.” Why? Because the word implies workers settling down permanently in Japan and not returning to their own country.
Immigration is a touchy subject because many Japanese take pride in cultural homogeneity. In addition, politicians fear losing votes from workers worried about losing jobs. Japan has little history of immigration and accepting foreigners is a major issue. Unlike the rest of the world, ethnic and cultural diversity appear a real threat in Japan.
But no matter how deep the fear, the number of foreign workers will increase for the simple reason that the growth rate is low, population is decreasing and retirees are increasing. At one time, 12 workers supported 1 retiree. Today 2 workers for 1 retired person. The population is dropping at an alarming speed.
Does a distinction between these two terms really make a difference in Japan? You are an “Immigrant” and not an “Immigrant”. You are an “Immigrant” but really a “Migrant”. No matter which term you decide on, Japan still needs people (a labor force) to survive as a nation. Chinese, Vietnamese, Brazilians, Sri Lankans, Chilians, Koreans, Africans and others are people. Therefore Japan will have to learn how to live with ethnic and cultural diversity knocking at its door.
Concretely, what should Japan do? The most important step is for the government to create more opportunities for national discussions, national awareness and national debates. Looking around, immigration/migration is quietly happening, and no one is talking about it or preparing to deal with it.
Immigration/Migration can be something positive for Japan if handled properly, but if allowed to proceed without preparation could present dangers in the years to come.
How does the Catholic Church view this situation?
The Church tries to put into action the consequences of its faith, based on the Word of God and proclaimed in the scriptures. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19,33). This alien, loved by God, is a kind of “sacrament” of Jesus Christ: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25,35). The Church helps us live out this reality as individuals and as a community of believers in Christ in the world of human mobility.
All Catholic social teaching must be understood in light of the absolute equality of all people and the commitment to the common good.
Three Basic Principles of Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration/Migration are:
First Principle: People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. – Every person has an equal right to receive from the earth what is necessary for life – food, clothing, shelter. Moreover, every person has the right to education, medical care, religion, and the expression of one’s culture.
Second Principle: A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. – Because there seems to be no end to poverty, war, and misery in the world, developed nations will continue to experience pressure from many peoples who desire to resettle in their lands. Catholic social teaching is realistic: While people have the right to move, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social and economic life are jeopardized.
Third Principle: A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. – The second principle of Catholic social teaching may seem to negate the first principle. However, principles one and two must be understood in the context of principle three. And all Catholic social teaching must be understood in light of the absolute equality of all people and the commitment to the common good. A country’s regulation of borders and control of immigration must be governed by concern for all people and by mercy and justice. A nation may not simply decide that it wants to provide for its own people and no others. A sincere commitment to the needs of all must prevail.