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Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

Burmese junta fuels influx


Special to The Japan Times

In 2008 there was a sharp spike in the number of people seeking asylum in Japan, and although only 6 percent of those processed were recognized by the government as refugees, they totalled 57 compared with 41 the year before.

News photo
Speaking out: A protester outside the Burmese embassy in Tokyo

Eri Ishikawa of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) attributes the rise — which included many applicants from Burma (which the military junta calls Myanmar) — to growing sympathy here following the brutal suppression of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and the military junta's woeful response to the humanitarian disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Many Burmese in Japan now also report that, sensing a more welcoming environment, they have filed applications for the first time, or reapplied.

The Justice Ministry reports that 1,599 asylum seekers applied for refugee status in 2008, up from 954 in 2006. Of last year's applications, 918 were processed, resulting in 57 people being granted refugee status under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

To date, since Japan signed the convention in 1981, it has accepted a total of 508 so-called convention refugees from all over the world. In comparison, since 2006 the United States has accepted 15,000 Burmese alone from refugee camps in Thailand under the "third-country resettlement program" — and in the 2007 financial year its overall refugee target was 70,000.

In Japan, about half the asylum seekers in 2008 were from Burma, and 38 of those received refugee visas. In addition, 360 asylum seekers, most from Burma, were granted humanitarian visas — up from 80 in 2007. However, humanitarian visas do not confer refugee status, and so recipients don't qualify for the same benefits and security of status as holders of refugee visas.

But for the Japanese government, humanitarian visas are attractive because its obligations are not as burdensome as for convention refugees. For example, recipients only get limited social welfare assistance. Japan also has the right to revoke such visas at its discretion.

In contrast, convention refugees have access to the full gamut of social-welfare programs, and get assimilation help such as language classes from the state-funded Refugee Assistance Headquarters.

Nonetheless, through refugee and humanitarian visas, the Japanese government in 2008 boosted its "protection rate" (providing some legal status and security to asylum seekers) to about 45 percent of applicants (417 out of 918) — sharply up on previous years, when it languished in single digits, at around 6 percent to 8 percent.

This shift is expected to attract a further increase in applications, as asylum seekers — not only from Asia — will believe their odds have improved in a country long virtually closed to refugees.

However, while Japan maintains its strict terms for granting convention refugee status, its upturn in granting humanitarian visas primarily aims to address the needs of asylum seekers with roots in Japan — including many who have married here and are raising families. It is hoped that this, too, will demonstrate to the international community that Japan is not turning its back on such problems.

According to Yuki Akimoto, an attorney who serves as director of BurmaInfo, an NGO that disseminates information about Burma and lobbies Japanese politicians and officials, Japan has long been torn in its approach to the country. Tokyo, she says, basically favors cozying up to Burma's military junta, but also reluctantly supports international sanctions aimed at pressuring the junta to improve human rights, release political prisoners and engage in political reform.

However, since 2007's point-blank shooting by a Burmese soldier of a Japanese news cameraman, Kenji Nagai, while he was working for APF covering a demonstration led by unarmed monks in the capital Yangon, Tokyo has taken a tougher stand toward the junta.

News photo
Torchbearer: Eri Ishikawa, a founder of the Japan Association for Refugees

Now, following the junta's crackdown on all dissent, Japanese authorities are taking a more sympathetic view of the plight of Burmese exiles here and their claims of facing political persecution if they are deported back home.

Ishikawa, who helped establish JAR in 1999, says, "It is important that Japan can be relied on to do its part and truly help those who really need help." She is encouraged that even though helping refugees doesn't draw any votes, more politicians are becoming interested and understand the value of assisting asylum seekers.

BurmaInfo's Akimoto also believes that sympathy for the people of Burma has increased precisely because of the junta's unbridled brutality toward them and its failure to help them raise their standard of living.

JAR is chronically underfunded, and in the current downturn is trying to cope with falling contributions from some large donors just as ever more asylum seekers are in need of assistance, ranging from legal advice to accommodation and basic household necessities.

However, a visit to its offices reveals a conference room stacked high with donated items, including a few men's suits hanging in the corner. JAR's remit evidently extends well beyond advocacy and counseling, since the suits are to help asylum seekers blend in by not looking like stereotypical namin (literally, "those with problems," but also the term for refugees), and so avoid harassment and arrest.

The government, too, is running out of money allocated for the support of asylum seekers due to a near-doubling in their numbers over the past year. Since asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their applications are assessed — a process that takes two years on average — they depend entirely on assistance.

Currently, a family of four is eligible for about ¥135,000 in living expenses per month (¥1,500 per adult and ¥750 per child per day), plus a monthly maximum of ¥60,000 in housing support. In principle, such support is limited to four months, but since such people lack medical insurance and are not permitted to work, that period is insufficient and is often extended.

The unexpected problem is that the number of people receiving assistance from the Refugee Assistance Headquarters jumped from 95 a month in 2007 to more than 180 by the end of 2008.

In the 2008/09 financial year, the total budget for such assistance was ¥78 million. As that budget was exhausted by the end of 2008, though, the government was left scrambling to secure supplementary funds to carry the program through until the end of March, when the fiscal year ends.

Ishikawa expects the number of applicants to continue rising, citing the ongoing problems in Burma, the war in Sri Lanka and growing numbers fleeing violence in war-torn regions in Africa.

In Ishikawa's view, the current official limit of four months' support is unrealistic, and should be extended to two years — or as long as it takes for the government to review the asylum application. Alternatively, the government could allow asylum seekers to work while their applications are processed. Certainly, from interviewing numerous asylum seekers, it's clear that the limited government support forces many to work illegally, which makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and also deportation.

Now, as Japan prepares for a new influx of asylum seekers, and is launching a pilot program for the resettlement of refugees, advocates believe there is a pressing need to have an open discourse about its policies — and to improve conditions for those seeking, or already granted, protection.



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