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Eighteen refugees from Myanmar arrived Tuesday in Japan from Thailand, their country of asylum, under the U.N.-promoted third country resettlement program, marking a new phase in Japan’s refugee policy that is often labeled as too restrictive.

The members of three ethnic Karen families are the first group to arrive following the government’s 2008 decision to accept about 90 refugees over three years under a pilot program, which Tokyo says is the first of its kind in Asia.

Twenty-seven Myanmar refugees consisting of five families were scheduled to arrive Tuesday, but nine from two families postponed their departure after two children among them developed a fever.

The 18 refugees appeared tense after arriving at Narita International Airport, but those who spoke to reporters said they were glad to have arrived in Japan.

“I want to grow rice and vegetables,” one man said. “The roads in Japan are huge. I would be in trouble if I get lost.”

They were greeted in the arrival lobby by Karen people dressed in traditional costumes with red and blue stripes.

“I’m glad to have more company,” said Saw Hla Gyi, a 44-year-old Karen man living in Japan. “I’m happy that they can now live in a safer and more secure place, compared to living in the camp.”

The refugees, who have lived more than 10 years in the Mera refugee camp in northwestern Thailand near the border with Myanmar, will aim to learn Japanese and find employment to resettle here.

William Barriga, a representative of the International Organization for Migration Japan, or IOM, said the government’s decision to take in the refugees under the program is a big step forward in terms of Japan’s contribution to the refugee problem worldwide, and that the nation can take a leadership role among Asian countries in this area.

Japan decided to implement the program, promoted by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2008 as a way to contribute to international humanitarian assistance. Tokyo says it will consider accepting more refugees under the program if the first group resettles successfully.

The 27 refugees were selected through interviews conducted by the Justice Ministry based on a list of candidates prepared by the UNHCR.

“The Justice Ministry will make its best effort so the refugees can live safely in our country,” Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida told a news conference Tuesday morning.

The Mera camp, the biggest refugee facility in Thailand, is home to about 50,000 people who fled Myanmar mainly due to armed conflicts between the Myanmar military and Karen National Union rebels.

The refugees underwent a preorientation program organized by the IOM, an intergovernmental organization, in July and August in the camp and have learned how to use money and introduce themselves in Japanese.

They will receive more Japanese lessons and job training for six months in Tokyo before deciding where to live and work.

According to an IOM official, most refugees who wish to resettle under the third country program are education-minded and hope their children can eventually attend universities.

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