The plight of Rohingya Muslims has made headlines as the Myanmar military’s escalating attacks against the ethnic group, often described in media reports as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities,” have captured global attention.
Following clashes between the country’s military and Rohingya insurgents in October 2016, the Myanmar Army began a major crackdown, prompting tens of thousands of Rohingya migrants to flee to neighboring Bangladesh and other nations.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since Aug. 25, when renewed insurgent attacks triggered a ferocious military response.
A top UNHCR official has called Myanmar’s military crackdown a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Rohingyas have suffered discrimination for decades, if not centuries. Deemed illegal immigrants by the government in Myanmar, they are denied citizenship, the right to vote and freedom of travel.
A small portion of Rohingya refugees have fled to Japan to seek asylum. But only a handful have been granted refugee status by the Japanese government, which is notorious for its reluctance to accept asylum seekers.
The following are questions and answers on Rohingyas in Japan.
How many Rohingyas are living in Japan and where are they staying?
There are approximately 250 to 300 Rohingya now living in Japan. About 130 are men, 80 are women and the rest are their children, according to Zaw Min Htut, executive director of Rohingya Advocacy Network in Japan.
Most of them live in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, a city located near a large number of factories where Rohingyas can work.
“Many jobs are available” in Tatebayashi that do not require “experience or language ability. It’s very convenient for Rohingya people,” Zaw Min Htut said, adding that the cost of living is much cheaper in Tatebayashi than in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Other than Tatebayashi, Rohingyas also live in Saitama, Kanagawa, Shiga, Aichi and Osaka prefectures, he added.
Government data only provide breakdowns based on nationality, not specific ethnic groups.
The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau data show that 17,775 Myanmar people lived in Japan and 650 applied for asylum in 2016.
How many Rohingyas have been granted refugee status?
Of the 130 Rohingyas who sought asylum in Japan, only 18 have been granted refugee status, while others were given special residence permission for humanitarian reasons, said Zaw Min Htut.
In addition, there are currently about 15 Rohingyas in the country seeking asylum, including three who are being held in immigration facilities, said lawyer Shogo Watanabe, who heads the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees and works closely with Zaw Min Htut.
In 2016, 10,901 applied for refugee status, up 44 percent from the year before, according to the Justice Ministry. Despite the rise in applications, Japan accepted just 28 refugees, increasing by one person from the previous year.
Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa said in August that she has no specific plans to expand the intake of refugees.
What kind of lives do Rohingyas in Japan actually lead?
For one, Zaw Min Htut, 45, who fled from Myanmar to Japan in 1998, now lives in Saitama with his Rohingya wife and four children. He and his family run a recycling company.
In 2002, Zaw Min Htut was the first Rohingya to be granted refugee status in Japan. Blacklisted by Myanmar’s military government for taking part in political protests, he obtained a passport on the black market and fled the country.
But Zaw Min Htut’s refugee status counts him among the privileged.
“They cannot work in Japan if they don’t have refugee status,” lawyer Watanabe said.
Without such recognition, asylum seekers also aren’t entitled to social security and face a thorny path in Japan, he said.
So Zaw Min Htut sees it as his mission to speak up about what’s happening back home.
“Too many people have been killed. A thousand people have been arrested. Hundreds of Rohingya women have been raped,” Zaw Min Htut said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Wednesday.
“One of my second cousins (has) been killed. Killed. I cannot be silent,” he said.
What is the Japanese government’s stance on the Rohingya crisis?
In September, Japan said it will offer $4 million in humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in Myanmar and Bangladesh. The United States has announced a plan to provide nearly $32 million to the refugees.
Japan has also condemned the Myanmar military attacks on the Rohingya.
Commenting on the Aug. 25 attacks in Myanmar, Foreign Press Secretary Norio Maruyama said in a statement in late August that they are “utterly unacceptable.”
“Japan strongly expects that, with the restoration of security, the protection of civilian populations and humanitarian access is assured as soon as possible,” he said.
But Zaw Min Htut believes Japan, with its ties to the Southeast Asian nation, can do more.
“We, RANJ would like to appeal to Japanese Government to strongly demand the Myanmar Government and Military Chief SG. Min Aung Hlaing to immediately stop the violent attacks on innocent Rohingyas,” the Rohingya Advocacy Network in Japan wrote in a letter addressed to Foreign Minister Taro Kono, delivered to the ministry on Sept. 27.
The amount of aid that Japan is offering for 600,000 refugees “is very small,” Zaw Min Htut said. “The Japanese government should show more generosity to the people who are suffering.”