Much fanfare greeted the arrival at Narita in September 2010 of the first Burmese refugees to take advantage of Japan’s decision to join the U.N.’s third-country resettlement program. Japan was the first Asian country to join the program, it was emphasized, under which the country would take in “less than 100” refugees from camps along the Thai-Myanmar border each year. Some refugee advocates even dared to believe that the move might mark the start of a trend toward a more humanitarian approach to applications for refugee status by those fleeing conflict or poverty.
Since then, however, the resettlement program has been widely criticized as ill-thought-out, half-hearted and even exploitative. After accepting an initial 30 ethnic Karen refugees from the Mae La camp in 2010 and another 17 in 2011, reports suggest the program is struggling to find families eager to relocate to Japan in the wake of all the bad press. Despite these teething troubles, the government announced in March it was extending the program for another three years.
At the beginning of the three-year pilot program, five families were brought over to Japan. After a six-month language and survival course, they were distributed between Chiba and Mie prefectures. Though living conditions were slightly better in Mie, all the families faced a number of problems.
The Japan Times recently talked to Myo Myint Swe, a Burmese refugee who has been closely following this issue. A 20-year resident of Japan, Myo is a graduate student at Tokyo University, where he is writing a thesis on the democratization movement in Myanmar and the relationship between the refugee community in Japan and their home country.
According to Myo, many of the problems the refugees have faced in Japan have their roots in a lack of communication and restrictions on the refugees’ access to information.
“The two families living in Chiba, for instance, were assigned to work on a farm,” he said. “At first they worked eight hours a day, five days a week, but after a while working hours became longer and longer, and they were forced to work on Saturdays as well, without anyone explaining the reason for this. Obviously they were upset by the situation, especially considering that their ¥120,000 monthly salary wasn’t raised accordingly.”
Apparently nobody explained how to do things properly, and they were scolded for doing things wrong.
“These people have lived for 10 to 20 years in refugee camps where they were never engaged in hard work,” Myo said. “Suddenly they were relocated to a completely alien environment, and were asked to work long hours on a demanding, sometimes dangerous job. No wonder they did not react well to the situation.”
Hiroka Shoji, Amnesty International Japan’s refugee officer, pointed out some of the practical problems these people had to deal with on a daily basis. “These families settled in a very isolated area, quite far from many public services,” she said. “The nearest kindergarten, for example, was one hour away. This was a considerable problem as the children’s mothers were working in the fields too.
“The older child (of one family) began attending a night junior high school, but the round trip took about 2½ hours. So eventually he stopped going. In the end, the whole thing caused a lot of physical and mental stress. The refugee families keep living in a state of uncertainty and anxiety, and don’t have a clear vision of their future life in Japan. Nobody even tells them what happens after the six-month training program is over.”
For some reason, the semigovernmental Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), which has been managing the program, tried from the start to keep these people isolated from both the larger Burmese community in Japan and local people. When asked to comment on allegations leveled in this article at the resettlement program, RHQ said they were not allowed to discuss such matters before first consulting the Foreign Ministry, which is in charge of the program.
The Japan Times also tried to speak to some of the refugees but was told by the NGOs working on their behalf that they wanted to avoid further problems with the Japanese bureaucracy.
According to Myo, the first newcomers were urged not to get a telephone, a fax machine or an Internet connection. “RHQ failed to understand what the real needs of the refugees were.”
In other countries that run the same program, refugees who have already settled down are involved in actively supporting the new arrivals. This contributes to a higher success rate.
“Currently the Burmese community in Japan numbers around 20,000 people, about half of them refugees. So it wouldn’t be a problem to find volunteers,” explained Myo. “And yet, the authorities don’t understand how important it is to get help and advice from a support group. As things are now, I believe they should reconsider the whole support system.”
However, the Foreign Ministry said that it had found some contradictions in the refugees’ claims of wrongdoing. In particular, a spokesperson said that an investigation had revealed that RHQ had actually encouraged the families to set up Internet accounts in order to cut down on phone bills.
The resettlement plan debacle is even more puzzling considering the work the authorities apparently put into the project before the first arrivals.
“The government actually sent a study group to Europe in order to learn from their experience,” said Shogo Watanabe, secretary general of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, who also represents one of the families in Chiba. “Apparently they failed to follow their example.”
Watanabe believes the government should be doing more to spread the word about the refugee issue.
“What is the ultimate purpose of this program? Why has this country joined the resettlement program? The authorities owe these answers to the Japanese people. Yet these questions remain largely unanswered.
“Without a clear explanation to the very people who are supposed to welcome the refugees, this project is bound to run into very big problems. You must convince everybody — both the refugees and the Japanese — that this is a win-win situation in which both sides are going to gain something,” Watanabe said.
Another big problem has been the top-down system through which the refugee policy has been implemented.
“There are no concerted efforts to work in collaboration with the local governments, the NGOs, citizen’s groups, scholars — and the refugees themselves,” Watanabe added. “As long as RHQ keeps saying that the main problem is the refugees’ negative attitude, I don’t see a bright future for the program.”
Myo believes that the single most important issue is communication. “The authorities should make sure that the refugees really learn Japanese, as this problem has negative effects on everyday life. Every piece of information they get is in Japanese. They can’t understand the gas or electricity bills they get in the mail, or how the national health system works. In this respect, a single six-month language course is absolutely insufficient.
“For people who are relocated to an English-speaking country, that could be enough, because many people have at least a basic knowledge of the English language, but for someone who has to learn Japanese from scratch, I believe that two years are necessary if you want these people to become self-sufficient.”
At the same time, Myo is opposed to complete assimilation. “Especially when you consider the children, they are going to forget their mother tongue and drift away from their roots. On the contrary, I think that one of the goals of the resettlement program should be to turn the youngsters into the seeds of a future intercultural society who are able to bridge the gap between Japan and other countries and cultures. In order to do this, the newcomers must be allowed to keep strong ties with the older refugee community.”
Lessons have been learned from the problems in the program’s first year. The two families who had originally been posted to Chiba were moved to Tokyo because of the myriad logistical and practical obstacles they had faced. Now they are employed in cleaning jobs. The families who came the second year were based in Tokyo from the start. All the children are attending school, despite the fact that education is not compulsory for the children of foreigners under Japanese law.
Activists in both countries and Japanese NGOs who have joined to form the Forum for Refugees Japan are carefully studying the new political situation in Myanmar to see how it may affect the refugees’ attitude towards resettlement. The April 1 by-elections, which resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, have created high expectations among many refugees, who are also excited by the economic reforms the government has been recently enacting and are now keen to return to their country.
“The big problem are the ethnic minorities who have lost everything — their land, their house,” explained Myo. “The younger generations in particular don’t want to go back to Myanmar. Some of them weren’t even born there, and the rest have too many bad memories.”
Myo, however, whose mother is ethnic Karen and father belongs to Myanmar’s Indian community, is looking forward to returning to Myanmar (or Burma, as he still calls it). “I want to help my country’s economic progress as a consultant. I’m particularly thinking about using my knowledge of Japan and the language to help Japanese enterprises to develop mutually fruitful relations with local companies. It’s a great opportunity.”
This newfound hope for the future of their homeland, coupled with disillusionment with the resettlement program, may be behind the recently reported drop in interest among refugees for resettlement in Japan. By February, only two families — a total of 10 people — had agreed to take part in the resettlement program this year, according to Amnesty’s Shoji. The government recently extended the program to two more refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.
“I heard from people who are working at the refugee camps in Thailand that the Japanese government is showing ‘promotion videos’ which depict Japan as a safe country where people can easily resettle with few problems,” Shoji said. “This makes me wonder how bad Japan’s image is among the refugee community.”
Even if RHQ can fill the quota of 30 refugees this year, this figure pales into insignificance when compared with other countries’ commitments under the U.N. program. In 2007 alone, 14 countries accepted a total of 75,000 refugees under the same program, with even Iceland — with a population of 300,000, hundreds of times smaller than Japan’s 127 million — accepting 30 Palestinian refugees a year.
Although refugee advocates have welcomed Japan’s commitment to continue with the resettlement program, there are no signs yet that it has affected Japan’s infamously low intake of asylum-seekers. In fact, of a record-high 1,867 applications for refugee status in Japan in 2011, only 21 were approved — down from a paltry 39 a year earlier.
A Japanese-language online talk show on “Local Integration of Refugees into Japanese Society” was aired on April 26. You can watch it at www.ustream.tv/channel/nanmin-now. Amnesty International’s refugee group is hosting a seminar (in Japanese only) on this subject on Saturday, July 21, in Tokyo. Details can be found at www.amnesty.or.jp/get-involved/event/2012/0721_255.html. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org