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TOKYO, Jan 15 2010 (IPS) - Greater interaction and integration are crucial to easing social tensions in countries that are host to a growing number of migrants, experts say.
The most recent example of such conflicts was in Italy, where riots flared up in southern Calabria this month after hundreds of migrant workers, mostly from Africa, protested the beatings of some of them.
Worries over long-term social fabric are forcing many countries to examine and reshape their migration policies, paying more attention to issues of language, suspicion, integration and social support, according to migration experts from Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands, Taiwan and Singapore who spoke at a symposium on the challenges of social integration policies here Thursday.
“One of the main ‘universal’ challenges facing migrants is that of cultural adaptation,” Guidikova, head of the Council of Europe’s division for cultural policy, diversity and dialogue, told the discussion organised by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation as part of its series on global demographic change and labour migration in Asia.
“I would not dwell on classical challenges such as access to work, health care, education, but would mention specifically cultural challenges which seem to be, to a degree, common to all migrants,” she said.
The challenges migrants face depend a lot on their situation: whether they are residing legally in the host country, are skilled and have dependents and family, she explains.
“These may involve community events, open celebrations of holy days, or secular feasts of different groups, events which highlight migrant languages, cuisine or family customs, portraits of migrants in media and other events,” Guidikova said.
“Cultural conflict also requires the use of intercultural mediators, ideally both outreach mediators in the neighbourhoods, and specialists in dedicated mediation centres,” she added.
Supporting migrant associations, especially those that foster links between migrants and the host community, is a clever strategy of empowerment and building social capital, Guidikova noted.
In South Korea and Taiwan, both of which receive large numbers of migrant workers from elsewhere in Asia, governments have launched social integration policies for marriage migrants.
In Taiwan, migrant spouses now make up more than 17 percent of marriages, according to Tseng Yen Fen, a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University.
Migrant spouses also make up 20 percent of all divorce cases, Tseng said. But Taiwan, after years of campaigning by women’s rights activists, has a regulation that protects those who experienced domestic violence. “They can break from their marriages without having to fear losing their legal residency rights, Tseng said. Migrants also have universal health coverage.
Japan, a homogenous society where migrants are often a touchy issue, does not have a policy on migrant marriages. The country’s more than 2 million registered foreigners make up about 1.6 percent of its more than 127 million people.
While Japan’s local municipal units and non-government organisations have implemented a variety of measures to address migrants’ needs and human rights, the government has not enacted social integration legislation.
Japan’s biggest migrant groups are North and South Koreans, Chinese and Brazilians with Japanese ancestry.
But most Japanese are not even aware of the migration situation because the media do not report it and politicians will not talk about it, explains Kazumi Miyazaki of the advocacy group Global Community. “We are confused about what our policy is on migration,” he said. “Decisions are made at the spur of the moment about them.”
But there is one city – Minokamo — that is known for having implemented new measures for its migrant population with the help of the city council, local residents, volunteers, civic organisations and school staff.
Seventeen percent of the more than 55,000 residents of Minokamo, located in Gifu prefecture in central Japan, are non-Japanese. They include a mix of Brazilians of Japanese descent, Filipino and Chinese migrants.
“We are truly an international city,” said Yoshimi Sakai, head of the lifelong learning division of the citizen cooperation department of Minokamo and director of the Central Community Hall there.
The local government has a multicultural community plan through which it aims “to have respect for human rights, to participate in a multicultural community as a social member and offer support to become independent”.
As part of this, local officials say the city has hired interpreters, held discussions and hosted ‘friendship groups’, so that Japanese and migrants stand equal as Minokamo residents.
Sakai adds that the city has special classes for foreign children to help them learn about Japanese life and culture and adapt to their new home, as well as to learn the Japanese language. But because school education is not compulsory for foreign children in Japan, it is difficult to understand the “education condition” of children who do not attend public schools, Sakai says.
The economic recession has also led to job losses among some migrants – a March 2009 survey by Minokamo city shows that 30 percent of Brazilians and half of Filipino migrants there are now unemployed — and this adds pressure on society.
Hard times become even harder because many migrant residents do not speak Japanese or understand the culture well enough.
Even in a more open community like Minokamo, a survey among its Japanese residents — discussed at the Thursday symposium — shows that challenges remain.
Asked how they feel about more foreigners in their community, only 2.9 percent said they have a “close foreign friend”, 10.2 percent have talked to a foreigner, almost half were anxious about the increase of foreign residents in their neighbourhood, and 1.3 percent said they thought it was a good thing to have foreigners in their neighborhood.
“It’s a challenge,” Sakai admitted. “We should share these problems with other nations.”
Junichi Akashi, associate professor at University of Tsukuba, says Japan does not feel a need to change since it is a homogeneous society and politicians rarely talk about immigration.
“For example, we have an ageing society but most Japanese say migrants will age as well, ” he explained. “The population will decrease, but they say things will balance out. Bringing in more migrants would only be temporary fix. It doesn’t mean Japanese are prejudiced, it’s that migrants are not their priority.”
Looking ahead, he says more migration could help open what has been a closed society. “Opening the door would be something good for Japan,” Akashi said. “It would open the mindset of Japan and the opening wouldn’t be a negative outcome.”
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