A case for rebranding refugees

I recently attended a luncheon hosted by Refugees International Japan and was very moved by the words of Jane Best OBE, the charity’s president and chief executive officer. She spoke about the image problem suffered by refugees: one of the barriers to gaining greater support for refugee aid programmes.

Ample evidence of the negative effect of this image problem may be found very close to home. In 2013, Japan approved a pitifully small number of just six asylum seekers, 0.16% of the 3,260 who applied.

In comparison, the UK, Germany and France—all with populations smaller than that of Japan—each grant asylum to more people annually than the total number of those who applied to Japan for asylum in 2013.

It seems to me that, rather than seeking changes in the constitution to allow Japanese involvement in foreign wars, it would be better for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to build on the reputation Japan currently enjoys globally as a peace-loving and humanitarian nation by opening the doors wider to asylum seekers.

Viewed by many as dirty, uneducated and a burden on host societies, asylum seekers’ negative image may well be what is driving Japan’s reluctance to provide refuge to more of them.

In most cases, this perception of refugees is manifestly unfair, but, as a realist, I believe that indignantly railing against ignorance and intolerance is often futile.

Most people not directly affected by natural disasters, conflict, famine and so forth go about their daily lives in blissful ignorance of the trauma and hardships suffered by so many. Yet, I do not believe that this is due to callousness alone. It is more likely due to emotional and psychological distance from the issue.

While many may sympathise, the problem is simply too big to consider. Most people have enough challenges to overcome simply living their own lives. Why should people care? I believe one solution lies in answering the question “What’s in it for me?”.

When a large firm shuts down or announces lay-offs, a net skill and knowledge transfer often takes place, benefiting those businesses that move quickly, snapping up the best talent from the failed enterprise. The same happens on an international scale when states fail or undergo political or social upheaval.

When the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, there was a public outcry at the British government’s reluctance automatically to grant British citizenship to Hong Kong citizens wishing to relocate there. It seems the government was afraid of a sudden influx of huge numbers of refugees.

While the British were equivocating, many of the elite and wealthy moved to Canada—which accepted them gladly—taking massive amounts of money and resources with them; a loss for the UK and a huge win for Canada. However, this situation does not only apply to the wealthy.

One of the most successful examples of refugees bringing benefits to their new hosts can be seen in the flight from religious persecution on the Continent to Britain by the Huguenot refugees in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Huguenots brought knowledge of precision engineering and artisanship, such as weaving and watchmaking.

Prior to this immigration, Britain had been a huge wool producer and exporter, but due to a lack of technology to weave the wool it produced, re-imported woven cloth. This created a trade imbalance.

By introducing advanced weaving technology, Huguenot immigrants played a key role in the birth of the British cloth-weaving industry, a mainstay of the later industrial revolution.

There are many more successes: Peter Dollond who founded a firm that became Dollond & Aitchison, Britain’s well known opticians; Peter Mark Roget FRS who published Roget’s Thesaurus in 1952; actor and playwright David Garrick who did much to popularise the works of Shakespeare; and actor Baron Laurence Olivier OM. All were descendants of Huguenots.

As Robin Gwynn points out in his book Huguenot Heritage: “… the remarkable versatility shown by some of the Huguenots seems rather the product of their displacement and situation as refugees”.

This shows the motivation of refugees to work hard and improve their lives: the survival work ethic. I struggle to see a significant difference between the Huguenot refugees of three centuries ago—who made such a massive contribution to British culture and economy—and Syrian, Kurdish or Coptic Orthodox Christian refugees today.

They are human beings like us, in many cases engineers, doctors, lawyers, designers, craftspeople, comedians, actors, poets and so on.

Given the slightest of chances, a welcome and the restoration of their dignity and basic freedoms, there is no way of knowing the immense contribution they could make to Japan or any other society willing to take a leap of faith and give them a new start.

Surely the impact of doing so would be better than the alternative of leaving them in penury and misery, thereby creating the social and economic conditions which may facilitate the radicalisation of their children by political miscreants.

Evidence abounds of the contributions and successes of immigrant and refugee individuals and communities. In 1882, a Belarusian Jewish refugee found work at a Leeds-based firm, giving him a start in the retail trade and enabling him to set up a stall in the city’s open market.

As he had a poor grasp of English, all his goods were priced at a penny: the original penny bazaar. His name was Michael Marks and, together with his partner, Thomas Spencer, he founded Marks & Spencer, one of the most successful British retail chains in history.

Our view is all too often obfuscated by the bad press given to immigrants—eating strange food, speaking funny languages, taking our jobs and so on. These are ignorant and lazy viewpoints.

As the above examples illustrate, with very little effort and the will to see the issue from a new perspective, we could unlock the door to a treasure trove of untapped talent, cultural richness and economic contributions.

That is what is in it for us; the potential is massive.