Refugee treatment under spotlight

Asia-Pacific region watching how Japan handles new program for people fleeing Myanmar

by Setsuko Kamiya

Nongovernmental organizations in the Asia-Pacific region supporting asylum seekers say they are watching with great interest how Japan will handle the resettlement of people from Myanmar starting next year, because it will influence their nations.

Panelists at an international symposium titled “Refugee Protection in the New Era and Civil Society” in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday also said getting the word out on the need for humanitarian assistance is growing increasingly necessary in these dire economic times when people are losing their jobs and feel supporting refugees should not be a priority.

Organized by the Japan Association for Refugees, the symposium drew participants from NGOs in Australia, the United States, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan.

In December, Japan announced it will accept 30 Myanmar people a year from refugee camps in Thailand for the next three years, with the support of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Japan will be the first Asian country to take in refugees living in foreign camps. The U.S. and Australia have taken in thousands of such refugees, but a majority of people seeking asylum in Japan came directly from their homeland. A total of 1,599 people applied for political refuge in Japan last year.

“Resettling the 30 refugees each year for the next three years, this may not be a significant number but is a significant milestone for your country,” said Christine Petrie, deputy director of the International Rescue Committee in the U.S., a group that helped about 10,000 refugees settle in America last year. The country as a whole took in more than 60,000.

“It’s an initiative that cannot afford to fail, because this small number will then set the tone as we move forward in further developing refugee programs,” she said.

Eri Ishikawa, secretary general of JAR, said that if the three-year pilot program is successful, she hopes to see Japan expand the number of nationalities that will be accepted, like Australia, which uses an allotment system.

Malaysia and Thailand have yet to sign the U.N. Convention Related to the Status of Refugees but have the most seekers registered with their local UNHCR offices. NGOs in these countries said they work to protect and empower the refugees, who do not hold legal status and face severe discrimination.

Although China has signed the convention, it does not apply to Hong Kong because of the two-government system, but legal professionals there are providing assistance to refugees.

Asked how NGOs are dealing with prejudice against refugees as well as the overall lack of understanding by society toward humanitarian aid, Tamara Domicelj of the Refugee Council of Australia said demonstrating how refugees are making significant contributions to their new country is important.

This was echoed by Lee Ho Taeg, president of South Korean NGO Pnan, who said he tells opponents that “South Korea is the 10th major economically developed country in the world but only a small portion of refugees are being accepted, which is much smaller than other developed countries,” he said. “The refugees devote themselves to Korean society. . . . They are not burdens. They are blessings.”

Tin Win, a refugee from Myanmar who was granted political asylum by Japan in 1999 and is now president of the Federation of Workers’ Union of Burmese Citizens in Japan, said that while he welcomes the resettlement program, there are still problems regarding local integration of the refugees.

He criticized the Japanese government for giving much more support to the Brazilian community than to refugees.

“I sympathize with many Brazilians who lost their jobs, but they can go back to their country. We refugees can’t,” he said.

Tin Win said the Myanmar community in Japan has focused on political activities in the hope that the situation in their home country will improve and they will be able to return. But as the number of refugees increases, they are facing integration issues as their children grow up and start attending school.

“We have been expecting that the situation in our country will change quickly and we will be able to get back. But the reality is not like that. So now I think we have to think about long-term settlement and about our children’s future,” he said.