Refugees, Supporters to Attend Global Refugee Forum; Japan Plays Role in Quadrennial Event in Geneva

The Japan News
Khadiza Begum and husband Musharaf Hussain prepare traditional food at their home in Tokyo, in early December.

The second Global Refugee Forum, which brings together various stakeholders including leaders of nations hosting refugees, donor countries, international organizations and civil society groups, is slated to take place in Geneva from Wednesday through Friday. The forum is held every four years, and Japan is one of seven co-conveners this year. Refugees and their supporters in Japan hope to use the occasion to raise public awareness about issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers in Japan.

“Refugees and other immigrants can become valuable members of society if they are given opportunities for education and work,” said Khadiza Begum, a Rohingya woman who came to Japan as a refugee herself in 2006. Khadiza, 37, is now an assistant manager for a Japanese start-up that creates job opportunities for refugee women, and she also works to promote education and social inclusion of children of refugees and immigrants. She will be attending the forum to represent refugees living in Japan.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, who have long been oppressed by the government there. Born to refugee parents in neighboring Bangladesh, Khadiza gave up her dream of attending university and becoming a doctor there, as Rohingya people were obliged to live in refugee camps. She came to Japan at 19 to marry family friend Musharaf Hussain, now 47, who had been granted refugee status in Japan.

Khadiza came to Japan full of hopes. She thought a bright future awaited her in the free and advanced country.

However, as Khadiza and Musharaf spoke no Japanese, they could not find good jobs or rent a place to live, and she felt isolated. The couple entered a six-month Japanese government support program for refugees and studied Japanese together. Khadiza studied the language for two more years and won a scholarship from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to attend Aoyama Gakuin University. She had two children while in the university, but she studied hard with the support of her husband and friends and graduated in four years.

After graduation, the family lived in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, for a few years, where there is a large Rohingya community. “There, I came to truly understand the hardship many refugees and migrant families were experiencing in Japan,” Khadiza said. Many men in Tatebayashi’s Rohingya community worked long hours in factories with low wages and unstable conditions. Their wives typically could not speak Japanese and stayed home, and they had difficulty communicating with doctors and their children’s teachers. Their children had a hard time keeping up with schoolwork.

While working at a Uniqlo shop in Tatebayashi, Khadiza volunteered to accompany women in the community to hospitals and schools. She also taught them Japanese and supported their children with schoolwork. To further help the community, she won another scholarship and acquired a master’s degree from Waseda University in March. She then joined the start-up company Shared Digital Center and now leads a project to teach Japanese bookkeeping to refugee women and employ them to telework for NGOs that want to outsource administrative work.

“It is really empowering for the women to be able to join the workforce and earn money using their free time,” Khadiza said. “I want to work to realize a society in which refugees can freely and actively participate in society. An inclusive society that values diversity should be good for everybody, including Japanese.”

The Japan News
Jintae Kim

Jintae Kim is the founder of Shared Digital Center, and he is also participating in the forum in Geneva to share his experience as social entrepreneur. Kim, 33, a Japan-born third-generation Korean, established the company and another start-up called Robo Co-op in 2021, after working for a major global consultancy firm. At Robo Co-op, refugees and single mothers work in teams of five to learn digital skills and then do contract IT work. Training and work are done all online, enabling people overseas to also participate as both instructors and workers.

“Refugees are often considered an economic burden for the host country, but we should see them as valuable global personnel,” Kim said.

The UNHCR estimates there were over 114 million people who had been forcibly driven out of their homes as of the end of September, and the situation is only getting worse with the conflict in Gaza from October.

Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa plans to attend the forum on Wednesday and call for “strengthening the unity and cooperation of the international community for improving the humanitarian situation,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

Japan is one of the UNHCR’s major donor countries, but the government takes a strict interpretation of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 2022, a total of 3,772 people from 68 countries applied for asylum in Japan. During the year, a record 202 people were granted refugee status, and additional 1,760 people were allowed to stay in the country based on humanitarian considerations, according to Japan’s Immigration Service Agency.

Participants from civil society, including Khadiza and Kim, will showcase their efforts in Japan and communicate with delegations from other countries.

“Businesses in Japan tend to think that refugee issues are something that happens overseas, but refugees can contribute to the digitization and globalization of our society,” Kim said.