[Essay] 2017.10.29 Report on NIHU International Symposium “Migration, Refugees and the Environment from Security Perspectives”




The Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University and the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University (NoA-SRC) organized an international seminar at Tohoku University, Sendai on 29 October. Almost 50 people attended the seminar which consisted of two sessions and a general discussion.



 Akihiro Iwashita (Hokkaido University) chaired the first session titled “Migration and refugees in Northeast Asia”. The speakers included Naomi Chi (Hokkaido University), Mitsuhiro Mimura (The Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia), Yuji Fukuhara (University of Shimane) and Serghei Golunov (Kyushu University). The three papers each focused on a specific location in Northeast Asia and analysed how migration affects issues of security. Professor Chi presented her findings from 10 years of fieldwork interviewing women from China, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam. Professor Chi is interested in these women’s experiences of being ‘marriage migrants’ and ‘domestic and care workers’ in Japan and Korea. Her argument was that both societies could do more to protect these women’s human rights. Professors Mimura and Fukuhara did a joint-presentation that also relied heavily on interviews. This time, the voices the audience heard about were those of North Korean men working on building sites in Mongolia and these men’s employers. Professor Mimura contextualised the details of Professor Fukuhara’s detailed fieldwork by placing these workers’ experiences in the framework of Mongolian-North Korean relations. The paper revealed how these worker’s experiences are increasingly influenced by international politics – in particular, the pressure exerted by the United States for Mongolia to reduce its support for North Korea.

The third paper moved away from interviews in person to consider the words of Russian politicians and officials as reported by that country’s media. Professor Golunov identified how Russian perceptions of Chinese migrants exist between two poles that he called ‘alarmism’ and ‘utilitarianism’. Although some politicians have resorted to critical portrayals of Chinese migrants as a threat to the nation’s security, others have taken a pragmatic approach favouring encouraging such migration as a boon to the economy. He concluded with the insight that as China’s economy becomes stronger, migration for Chinese is becoming less attractive. Furthermore, migration to China for Russians is actually becoming more appealing, who are enticed by the higher wages. Professor Jong Seok Park (Kyushu University) as commentator provided several new points for the panellists and the audience. These included a discussion about the role of ‘agency’ in women’s migration decisions and a questioning of the terms used to describe North Korea.



 Following lunch, Jusen Asuka (Tohoku University) chaired the second session on “Migration, refugees and the environment”. The first speaker was Nina Hall (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna, Italy). She spoke about how international organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have adapted their mandates to meet the challenges of migration caused by climate change. John Campbell (University of Waikato, New Zealand) followed Professor Hall. He introduced his research on the threat posed by climate change to people living in Kiribati. While not central to his presentation, Professor Campbell’s view that the United Kingdom as the former colonial power should do more to acknowledge its responsibilities to the Kiribati people caught the attention of the audience. Benoit Mayer (Chinese University of Hong Kong) gave the last presentation of the seminar. He argued that rather than discuss climate change as a discrete factor contributing to migration, academics and policy-makers should think about the ‘climate-migration nexus’. Using the example of international law, Professor Mayer examined how climate change was one of many causes of migration that are entangled and cannot be separated out. The session concluded with comments by Kentaro Ono (Honorary Consul of the Republic of Kiribati in Sendai). He made a plea for academics not to apply the label of ‘climate refugee’ to the people of Kiribati. Instead, he urged the panellists to think of new terms that emphasised ‘migration with dignity’.


Following the two sessions, the symposium finished with a general discussion. Mr Ono’s argument provided the starting point for a debate about how to counter ignorance in Japan about refugees. More specifically, an international student asked what policy-makers might do to assist people in a country such as Bangladesh where the state has limited resources. The panellists conceded that there are no simple solutions but warned against thinking only about migration as a security issue. As the title of the symposium stressed ‘security perspectives’, this reminder of the importance of a humanitarian approach to migration and refugees was welcome. Akihiro Iwashita gave the closing remarks in which he thanked the staff of Tohoku University for their hard work in organising such a successful symposium.          (Jonathan Bull / SRC, Hokkaido University)