The United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees laid down a treaty regarding the definition of refugee status and the duties of signatories with respect to refugees and asylum seekers. The 1967 Protocol made a few amendments to this contract. Today, 145 member states have signed at least one of these treaties, and the vast majority of the western world stands in agreement with both. In contrast to the global norm, Asia is overflowing with states that do not observe the terms of either treaty.

This disregard for international refugee law may partially explain the following ostensible paradox: the western world has been in the news for accepting thousands to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since 2014, but equally capable Asian countries have largely neglected to do the same. Despite their relative prosperity and liberal-democratic character, why have South Korea, Japan, and other such Asian states refrained from committing themselves to the same level of assistance and asylum provision as European and North American countries?

Proximity of the Western world to the Middle East is sure to be a common rationale for this disparity. However, this reasoning fails to take into account the fact that Canada, separated from Europe by an ocean, has still resettled over 30,000 Syrian refugees in less than a year. In addition, this logic does not explain the depth of the disparity: Germany has accepted over 600,000 Syrian refugees, while Japan, in contrast, resettled a grand total of three Syrian refugees in 2015.

Sharpening the contrast is the fact that many Asian countries have stronger religious and cultural ties to Syria. Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and India have extremely large Sunni Muslim communities—in the case of the first two, Sunni Islam is the official state religion. By this logic, Syrian refugees should be able to acculturate well into these societies, at least in a religious dimension. Other states, including India, South Korea, and Japan, are home to a diverse array of religions, and some already have large communities of several Abrahamic faiths for all Syrians to fit into. Furthermore, assimilation programs are not out-of-reach for wealthy Asian countries. Even if they accommodated a moderate number of refugees, Japan and South Korea’s prosperity should make these efforts relatively easy.

All this seems to indicate that asylum in Asia would be a very welcome prospect for a Syrian refugee and not too inconvenient of an arrangement for Asian countries. What is it, then, that prevents refugees from resettling in these countries?

One previously mentioned roadblock might be that of many Asian countries’ exemptions from the treaties of 1951 and 1967; countries may be reluctant to shoulder the load of thousands of refugees without first agreeing with the international code of conduct regarding refugees. Additionally, given their proximity to other potential refugee groups, countries such as India and Malaysia may be willing to allow in a small number of Syrian refugees but may not wish to set a precedent for accepting all other refugees in the future.

Another problem for several countries is overpopulation. India and China are both densely populated states that have made efforts to curtail their population growth rates. Despite taking various measures, both are still experiencing high levels of population growth, and consequently, they will probably not be very receptive to the idea of taking in a large number of refugees to exacerbate the problem.

Moreover, many countries simply may wish to avoid the controversy or fear surrounding Syrian refugees. Just as the United States has refrained from accepting a large number of refugees, some Asian states are able but unwilling to deal with the political challenges and extensive preparation, screening, and assimilation efforts required in refugee resettlement. Popular sentiments also play a role, as it is possible that native populations may not know or care enough about Syrian refugees to provide much support. This logic suggests that due to their physical and cultural distance from Syria, some Asian peoples may not feel the need to take action. South Korea, for example, has only accepted about three percent of non-Korean refugee applicants as a result of a national pride surrounding its ethnic homogeneity. Similarly, China’s scope of ethnic and cultural diversity extends to the country’s 56 ethnic groups, but not much further. Out of a pool of 5,000 asylum-seekers in 2014, Japan merely 11.

Yet there is no real justification for this neglect. For some Asian countries, cultural and/or religious anxieties surrounding refugee acceptance are understandable, but even then, accepting even a small number of refugees is a good first step toward establishing trust between the native and refugee populations. What’s more, the converse to the overpopulation argument implies that countries with decreasing birthrates and populations such as Japan should strongly consider following Germany’s example in resettling refugees within its borders.

Of course, accepting only modest numbers of refugees every year will be necessary to avoid the assimilation problems currently plaguing Germany. While Asian Islamic states share many cultural and religious similarities with Syria, refugees are likely to experience a similar degree of culture shock and differences in East Asian countries as in Europe. Yet this notion provides all the more reason to slowly resettle refugees in many different countries rather than concentrate them all in a few areas—steadily adding new groups to the larger population can only increase the cultural diversity and richness of a country.

Most importantly, support for this sort of change needs to be generated from the ground-up. The type of nativist, ethnocentric, and anti-immigration attitudes common in Japan and South Korea should be confronted head-on with intelligent, country-specific appeals and efforts to increase cultural awareness, such as youth exchanges and educational programs. By doing so, the people of these and other Asian countries might be moved to take a more active stance on the refugee crisis, to the benefit of thousands of displaced Syrians.


Image source: Wikipedia/bfishadow

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