On July 28, a 39-year-old man from Myanmar died alone in the International Medical Center of Japan in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.
It was only 10 days before his death that he was finally taken to the hospital — almost in a state of coma — after other institutions refused to accept him. Suffering from brain inflammation and pneumonia, he did not have legitimate resident status or health insurance.
His friends say the man wanted desperately to go back to his home country to die, but he was unable to renew his passport and acquire permission to re-enter Myanmar because he didn’t have the money to pay the “tax” charged by the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo.
The embassy imposes a levy of 10,000 yen per month on Myanmarese breadwinners living in Japan — regardless of how much they earn or if they have a visa — and 8,000 yen on their spouses.
Japan and Myanmar do not have a bilateral agreement to prevent dual taxation on Myanmarese living in this country.
Because many undocumented Myanmarese do not pay the levy on a regular basis, they face a huge payment if they go to the embassy for documents necessary to return home, including passports. If an applicant is unable to pay, the embassy leaves the application up in the air or often refuses to even accept it, according to many Myanmarese living in Tokyo.
The embassy has declined to comment on the practice.
Having neither visas to stay nor passports to leave, many Myanmarese are forced either to live in detention in an immigration center or to live a marginal existence often without social security protection — even though they want to go home amid the diminishing job opportunities here.
The desire to return home is especially strong among those who have fallen too ill to work.
“I want to immediately return home before I get too sick,” said a 55-year-old Myanmarese who has overstayed his visa. His hypertension grew serious a month ago, forcing him to quit his job at a restaurant.
The man, who also suffers from depression and insomnia, has not contacted the embassy for a legitimate passport because he has never paid its “tax” since arriving here six years ago. This means he “owes” about 1 million yen, including levies, arrearage and paperwork fees.
“There are so many people like me, and I hope both the Japanese government and the Myanmarese Embassy will think about our plight,” he said.
Taeko Kimura, director of Friendly Asians Home, a Tokyo-based citizens’ group, said more and more Myanmarese people are dying in Japan without a passport to return home or health insurance to cover their medical expenses.
She said at least 15 such people have died in Japan since last year, including nine with AIDS. Many were unable to obtain a passport or did not apply for one until it became too late because they had not paid the embassy’s levy, she said.
Another Tokyo-based citizens’ group, People’s Forum on Burma, estimates that there are around 10,000 Myanmarese in Japan, and that more than half of them have either overstayed their visa or illegally entered Japan and have no immigration record. This means many must obtain relevant documents from the embassy before they can leave.
Kimura’s group is currently providing help to 32 Myanmarese who need a passport to get out of Japan, negotiating with the Japanese government or the embassy on their behalf.
It is also in contact with 12 Myanmarese hospitalized in public institutions.
She said the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau has given up on deporting them because they are too ill to move, and it has failed to address the question of how and under what status they should remain in Japan.
Kimura charges that neither the Foreign Ministry, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry nor local governments offered help, and hospitals were reluctant to accept them due to their lack of health insurance — until they were one step from death.
These government bodies actually ask the support group, which operates in the red with minimal subsidies, to look after ill Myanmarese before and after their death, she said.
The government is well aware of the problem, especially the many cases of Myanmarese who have ended up dying from AIDS in Japan despite their wish to return home. In 2001, four ministries, including the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, set up a joint project team to tackle “problems concerning exportation of Myanmarese AIDS patients.”
The team pointed to four factors standing in the way of their wish to return home — lack of money for plane fare, the technical difficulties involved in transporting seriously ill patients the long distance home, the dearth of advanced medical institutions in Myanmar and the Myanmar Embassy’s refusal to issue passports to those who have not paid the levies.
The Foreign Ministry then asked the embassy to issue passports in cases where there are human rights concerns. Ministry officials said that at one point the embassy became relatively cooperative in deportation procedures for those who were seriously ill.
The ministry has also raised the levy system with the embassy, because it may constitute an exercise of sovereign power in a foreign country and thus violate international customary law.
The embassy countered that the levies are not mandatory, and that it often takes time to issue passports due to difficulties in confirming applicants’ identities in Myanmar, which has numerous ethnic minorities, a ministry official said.
The situation changed when Japan decided to freeze new aid projects for Myanmar in June after the junta there refused to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kimura of Friendly Asians Home said the embassy has since refused to issue passports to even those with serious illnesses — possibly in retaliation against Japan’s decision to cut off aid.
Regardless of the stalemate with the embassy, activists say, the government should provide at least minimum support from a humanitarian perspective.
“The issue is also a domestic problem for Japan, which has failed to track down illegal entrants or people overstaying their visas, letting them work here without the protection of welfare programs,” Kimura said. “These Myanmarese die in despair and solitude so far away from their home. Can we still blame them or their country for everything while not doing anything for them?”
Kimura is now taking care of the cremated remains, kept at a temple in Suginami Ward, of Myanmarese who have died over the past two months. She had arranged for their hospitalization, death certification, funeral service and cremation.
Their families cannot come to Japan as they cannot afford air tickets, and nobody knows when their remains can return home, she said.