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Critics slam settlement program’s lack of vision

Lawyers, asylum-seekers say government project must be opened to local aid groups

by Setsuko Kamiya

Lawyers and supporters of asylum-seekers in Japan have cast a critical eye on the start of the government’s third-country refugee resettlement program.

They claim that while the government is seemingly opening the country for more refugees through the pilot program, the situation for individuals who fled their countries directly seeking political asylum here continues to be very harsh. Critics point to the lack of consistency in the government’s approach to the overall issue of allowing people to resettle here.

Some say the government has put a wall around the program to keep out other parties willing to help.

They have urged the government to allow them to participate in helping the resettlers adjust to Japanese society. If the country really wants the internationally watched project to succeed, they argue, this is necessary.

“It’s very unclear what the government plans to do after the first three years (of the trial resettlement),” said Shogo Watanabe, head of a lawyer group working on behalf of asylum seekers. “We can’t see a long-term, comprehensive immigration policy coming.”

Indeed, the differences between someone coming directly to Japan seeking refugee status and those coming via a third country and various negotiations, are obvious from the start.

The five ethnic Karen families who arrived this fall from a refugee camp in Thailand near the Myanmar boarder are designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees under the U.N. convention on refugees. Under Japan’s pilot program, 90 people from the camp will resettle here over the three years.

An official at the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau said the families have been allowed into the country because of their urgent need for protection. But they have not been accorded refugee status by the justice minister. Thus they will not be counted among recognized refugees or those protected by the government through the conventional application process. Instead, the families have been registered as long-term residents, the official said.

Watanabe, who supports foreign nationals seeking political asylum in Japan, said having the families from Myanmar here has had no positive impact on the conventional process for individual asylum-seekers.

“Getting refugee status continues to be very tough,” he said. “There is no criteria, objectivity, or transparency in the screening process.”

Only a handful are granted political asylum by the government. 2009 saw 1,388 foreigners come directly to Japan and apply for refugee status, but only 30 were successful, including those who had filed applications at earlier dates.

According to the Japan Association for Refugees, about 950 people have already applied for asylum in the country this year as of the end of November.

Typically, the screening process takes about two years, but during that period, most applicants cannot receive financial support from the government because of the limited budget. They are also not allowed to work during that time.

The Justice Ministry announced in July it will speed up the screening process to around six months, but some people are still left without any means of support, according to JAR.

Asylum-seekers often have no choice but to rely on support from compatriots or nonprofit aid groups, but because their numbers are increasing, aid is becoming harder to come by, said JAR’s Mihoko Kashima.

Even if one is granted refugee status here, the support to learn the Japanese language, find jobs or places to live is a challenge for most, Kashima said.

“Even after they are granted refugee status, there doesn’t seem to be a way for them to get on the upward spiral (to improve their life),” she said. “If the government is serious about accepting more refugees, it needs to create an environment where they feel they have opportunities.”

The ethnic Karen families on the resettlement program are currently under the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry and receiving six-month Japanese language training and other tools necessary to help them settle and begin working.

Kashima noted that in other countries where third-country resettlements take place, it is common for governments to work with NPOs in the early stages to create a consistent support system.

“We have yet to be approached,” she said.

Because of the lack of transparency, Kashima said, it is unclear if the programs provided to the refugees are sufficient, or what sort of followup is being planned when the six months of preparation for life in the country is over.

Apparently, it’s not just the nonprofit aid organizations, but fellow refugees themselves who have not been invited to help promote the new program.

“The most important thing is the empowerment of the refugees,” said Tin Win, a refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, who was granted political asylum in 1999 by the government. “But our fortune has been decided without our participation. . . . many policymakers don’t even know what problems we have.”

Tin Win, who heads the Federation of Workers’ Union of the Burmese Citizens in Japan, said he welcomes the Karen people from the camp in Thailand. He said that while there are differences between them and conventional refugees, it is more constructive for both groups to cooperate and work toward their assimilation into Japanese society.

“In that way I think we can solidify the communities and work together and promote our rights and our integration into Japanese society,” he said.

To do so, it is also necessary for the government to provide equal treatment to the two groups, he added.

From experience, Tin Win said that acquiring language skills is important for refugees, but just a few months of Japanese lessons are not enough — there is a huge need for comprehensive followup.

Teaching the basics of life in Japan to newcomers — including societal rules, the educational system, social insurance policy and workplace behavior — is also necessary, said Tin Win, who now works at an auto parts factory in Gunma Prefecture.

“We jump from a Third World country without the rule of law to a First World country where there is a sophisticated system. Please understand that it is new for us and difficult for us to understand,” he said.

At the same time, Japanese society should also open up and appreciate diversity and accept refugees as a part of society, he said. The fact that refugees and other resettlers are marginalized is a problem because it prevents the groups from communicating with Japanese people, Tin Win said.

“(Myanmar democracy icon) Aung San Suu Kyi always said diversity is not weakness. It’s power,” he said.