Thursday, February 25, 2010

Japan: Door now ajar for Burmese refugees

MAE SOT --Justice Ministry officials from Tokyo began interviewing asylum-seekers from Burma on Tuesday about possible resettlement in Japan, a move that many people say is long overdue.

At the Mae La camp near Mae Sot, about 400 kilometers northwest of Bangkok, Japanese officials met with several Burmese families who are seeking refugee status.

Tokyo plans to accept, on a trial basis, 30 Burmese refugees in fiscal 2010, part of 90 in total to be accepted by fiscal 2012.

Japan's acceptance of asylum-seekers in what is called a third-country resettlement is the first such move among Asian nations. However, other developed nations have already accepted tens of thousands of such refugees in the same way.

Third-country resettlement is often seen as the last resort for refugees who are unable to settle in the country where they first sought refuge. Many face continued persecution or other risks if they are repatriated.

Japan has long been criticized for its reluctance to accept refugees, particularly those who directly seek asylum upon arrival in Japan. The resettlement program is seen as a chance to show a proactive stance.

"The situation is completely different from the past," said one senior Foreign Ministry official.

At present, nine refugee camps exist in northwestern Thailand, which borders Burma. Roughly 150,000 people are in the camps, with 50,000 concentrated at Mae La.

Given the prolonged stays of many people in the camp, concerns have been raised about their living conditions.

Tokyo officials began studying the possible third country resettlement of Burma's refugees in 2007. This was after 15 countries, including several in Europe, along with the United States and Canada, introduced resettlement programs in 2006.

According to statistics from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, between October 2007 and the end of September 2008, the United States had resettled 60,192 refugees from around the world. Australia took in 11,006 in 2008, and Canada 10,804 in the same year.

New Zealand and Britain accepted 741 and 722 refugees, respectively, in 2008.

According to Yoshimi Saita, head of the UNHCR Mae Sot field office, many Burmese refugees appeared reluctant to accept Tokyo's offer.

Saita said that was "likely because it was the first time."

Many refugees say they have qualms about leaving for a country so far from their homeland. Those who were willing to travel a great distance have already gone to the United States.

One woman in her late 40s confided, "Being able to live in a camp where there are no security concerns is enough. Besides, I have little education. I don't think I could live in a foreign country."

One camp supervisor said rumors that Japan is "a dangerous country where disasters caused by earthquakes and volcanoes are frequent" have dampened interest in resettling there.

Some who showed interest in coming to Japan were denied, however, due to Japan's strict requirements. Tokyo asked the UNHCR to list only young families with children and with no criminal record.

Meanwhile, other concerns remain both for the refugees and for the government.

Justice Ministry officials who visited the camp last November were shocked to learn that hundreds of refugees had, after receiving documents allowing them to enter the United States, sold the papers to human traffickers.

Such moves have Japanese officials worried.

"While we are only talking about 30 people (in the first phase)," said one official, adding, "We need to be very careful in selecting candidates, as any problems at the start will have serious implications."

Japan still needs to bolster its programs to help refugees once they are in the country.

The resettled refugees are scheduled to receive just six months of training in Japanese culture, social systems and language before moving on. Only one group, based in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, apparently has agreed to help refugees to find jobs.

"There is no clear view of what the refugees will do after their six-month training period ends," said Hiroaki Ishii, acting secretary-general of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Japan Association for Refugees.

"More serious discussion among local government, nongovernmental organizations and citizens, incorporating the refugees themselves, is needed," he said.