Pilot resettlement program put to test with first Karens

Beyond support until spring, government has no idea how to proceed


This fall, five families from Myanmar arrived in Japan filled with hope and excitement for a new life.

For the 27 ethnic Karen allowed to resettle here, it was the start of a new chapter in their lives, having first fled their home to escape persecution by Myanmar’s military junta and then spending years of trying to survive in a refugee camp in Thailand.

And for Japan, this is a unique attempt to accept asylum seekers as part of the so-called third-country resettlement program initiated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the first such attempt by an Asian nation.

But it is still a pilot program, and the government has yet to hammer out numerous details if it’s going to work and be a pathway for a permanent settlement system.

The UNHCR program, adopted by more than 20 countries, gives people stuck in refugee camps the opportunity to build a stable home in a third country. While the West, including the United States, European countries and Canada, has been actively accepting people for resettlement, Japan is the first Asian country to try it.

“Japan is taking the lead within Asia on finding durable solutions for refugees who are not able to return home,” said Johan Cels, the UNHCR’s representative in Japan. “And it is a major component of international burden-sharing.”

According to the UNHCR website, 112,400 refugees were admitted for resettlement in 19 nations in 2009. The United States accepted 79,900 of them, Canada took in 12,500 and Australia received 11,100. The top three countries of origin were Myanmar, Iraq and Bhutan.

“The third-country resettlement program provides a permanent home for refugees not in their country of origin or a temporary shelter but in a third country,” said Yuichi Oba of the Foreign Ministry’s humanitarian affairs division. “And amid the grave refugee situation in the world, UNHCR has been calling on various countries (to introduce the program) as a permanent solution.”

In December 2008, the government agreed to introduce a pilot resettlement program that would accept 90 people from the Mera refugee camp in Thailand over a three-year span starting this fall.

According to Oba, Japan chose Myanmar because it is one of the countries in Asia that has produced a large number of refugees. But he added that nothing has been decided regarding what will happen when the three-year pilot program runs its course, including the possibility of taking in refugees from countries other than Myanmar. The 27 Karens are recognized by the U.N. as refugees, but the Justice Ministry merely regards them as new permanent residents.

“Japan is part of Asia and its foreign policy is based on Asian diplomacy,” Oba said. “Myanmar has a lot of refugee problems and we felt that it was the appropriate country for Japan to first lend a hand to.”

This isn’t the first time Japan has accepted a large number of asylum-seekers. In the late 1970s, thousands of boat people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos made their way to Japan. In the end, Japan accepted more than 11,000 Indochinese who were given language and vocational training, and cultural lessons to integrate into Japanese society.

Oba said that experience formed the basis for the Karen families’ training program.

Some experts say 30 resettlers a year isn’t going to make much of a difference. According to attorney Masako Suzuki, many lawyers have reacted “relatively coolly” to the program.

“I think that the ultimate objective for the third-country resettlement program is to appeal to the international community,” said Suzuki, who works in the Tokyo Public Law Office. “But of course, it’s better than nothing.”

Suzuki pointed out that Japan, as a signatory member of the U.N. refugee convention, is obligated to give asylum to people who have fled their countries of origin to Japan. In recent years, there have been more than 1,000 applications in Japan annually, but only a handful actually win recognition as refugees.

“Japan has the responsibility as a convention member to give protection to asylum seekers who only have Japan to turn to,” Suzuki said. “It’s not a bad thing, of course, to expand the acceptance of resettlers, but Japan can’t ignore its duties to give protection to asylum seekers who come here directly.”

According to the Foreign Ministry, there was no specific reason why the government reached a figure of 30 refugees per year.

“It is impossible for Japan to accept tens of thousands of refugees, let alone even several hundred, and that would just result in misfortune for the refugees as well,” Oba explained. “The government figured that with about 30 people, it could give its full attention and support to them.”

The Mera camp is the largest refugee facility in Thailand, hosting 50,000 people who fled from Myanmar mainly because of the armed conflict between the junta and Karen National Union rebels. The five families who came to Japan lived in the camp for more than 10 years.

“Being the largest refugee camp, there is a high degree of need for third-country resettlement at the Mera camp,” Oba said, adding the camp already had an established system to smoothly send refugees to third countries.

The UNHCR first compiled a list of refugees willing to go to Japan. Then, Japanese officials held interviews at the camp and looked to select around 30 people, this time picking 27. Oba said Japan was looking for those with a strong will to live independently once they got here.

“What is very important is that the families volunteer,” UNHCR’s Cels said. “It is not that we do the selection for (the refugees) . . . because it is a life-changing decision and they have to be comfortable with that.”

Since their arrival, the 27 ethnic Karens have been provided temporary housing in the Tokyo metropolitan area while undergoing training to integrate into society.

The media have been given very little opportunity to report on the resettlers by the Foreign Ministry. According to Oba, this is to protect their privacy and safety.

Thus little is known about their current situation.

“They are refugees and we must respect their privacy to the maximum,” Oba said, adding they need to focus on resettling in Japan. “We are aware, however, that the press and the people’s interest in this issue is strong and that we should provide the public with as much information as possible because we are using taxpayers’ money for this new policy.”

From morning till dusk, the resettlers are taught everything from the Japanese language and the rules for throwing out trash to using flush toilets and the handling of electronic goods, according to Oba. He added that the culture gap was so wide all sorts of details had to be taught.

The acclimation program lasts only six months, and come spring the settlers must be ready to start building their lives on their own. However, the details of where they will be going, where they will be working or receiving education has not been decided yet.

“For these refugees to live independently in Japan after next April, they are going to need a lot of support from various people,” Oba said, including the companies for which the fathers will work, the community where they will live and their local governments. “There is a limit to the government’s aid, and I think the key will be other support.”

In the long-term view, the major issue will be what will happen after the three-year trial period ends. But the Foreign Ministry says nothing about the future of the resettlement program has been decided.

“We are still trying to make sure that the first group becomes independent in the spring,” Oba said. “We will begin discussions with related ministries going forward, but the future is currently a completely blank sheet of paper.”

UNHCR’s Cels said he isn’t concerned with the relatively small number of people accepted for resettlement. He is focusing more on making sure the three-year pilot program becomes permanent.

“I think what is important for the first three years is to develop a very good system which is successful,” Cels said. “Because if we can show everybody, the public, the politicians, that indeed refugees can successfully resettle to Japan, integrate to Japan and contribute to Japan, I think there will be a very strong and very solid support for this program.”

With scant opportunity for a stable life in camps, including employment and education, Cels stressed the importance of the resettlement program.

“Their only option is that either they stay in a camp for 10, 20, 30 years with very limited options or possibilities . . . or resettlement,” Cels said. “I think this resettlement therefore gives an opportunity for people who otherwise have no chance to start a new life.”