A Muslim refugee from Myanmar urged the government Tuesday to grant political asylum to other members of his minority group, the Rohingya, who have fled the oppression of the ruling military junta.

“They are victims of systematic, persistent and widespread human rights violations,” asserted Zaw Min Htut, who in 2002 became the first Rohingya to be granted refugee status by Japan.

Members of the ethnic minority from western Myanmar were rendered stateless by the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law.

The group recently became a focus of international attention when the Thai military began turning away hundreds of Rohingya boat people in December.

Their plight was even discussed at the ASEAN meeting in Thailand that ended Monday.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, Htut said the Rohingya, who are a target of religious and political persecution, have been forced to flee their homeland for countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and even the United Arab Emirates. A large majority, however, reside in Bangladesh.

About 200 Rohingya are in Japan, both legally and illegally, he said.

According to Htut, only 11 Rohingya have been granted refugee status by Japan, while 27 have received special residence permission on humanitarian grounds. About 70 family members of the permit holders reside in Japan, while 92 are currently seeking refugee status.

Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer who represents Myanmar asylum seekers in Japan, including Rohingya, said many of those seeking refugee status have entered Japan illegally on fake passports, largely due to their statelessness. Despite the political situation back home, they can face deportation to Myanmar, he said.

About 30 of the 92 asylum seekers already have been turned down and are filing lawsuits against the government to overturn the decision, Watanabe said.

“Rohingya are persecuted just because they are Rohingya, and they are stateless and should not be deported back to Myanmar,” Watanabe said. “It’s very hard to understand why the government keeps rejecting them, because surely they know the situation the Rohingya are in.”

A Justice Ministry official, however, said ethnicity is not a criteria for granting political asylum. “Internationally, the criteria is whether the person is politically persecuted” and thus each applicant is reviewed according to his or her activities, she said.

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