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Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006

Center gives refugees reason for hope

Hurdles to social integration lowered by language program, followup


Staff writer

For refugees in Japan, integrating into society has never been easy, but with a bit of coaching in the language and some dedicated support, they may find it easier to get started on their path to a new life.

News photo
A Japanese-Language teacher discusses newspaper articles with students at RHQ Support Center in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

This coaching, at the hands of a Japanese teacher, is provided by RHQ Support Center, which opened in May and is run by the government-affiliated Refugee Assistance Headquarters. Its enthusiastic students all share one thing: They have been officially recognized by the government as refugees or they are family members of refugees.

The program offers 572 hours of Japanese-language courses and provides social adaptation and employment guidance.

"(RHQ) has been commissioned by the government to provide followup (to refugees who have been recognized)," said Shin Ohara of RHQ. "I think all foreigners living in Japan face hurdles, but for refugees it is especially hard to be adopted into Japanese society for various reasons, including the language barrier."

The center opened with 16 refugees, 15 of whom are Myanmarese. The nationality of the remaining student was withheld to prevent identification.

Throughout most of the 1990s, the government only granted refugee recognition to one or two people a year, but in recent years they have been increasing, reaching 46 in 2005.

The center offers a six-month daytime course and a yearlong evening program for those who work during the day.

"I wanted to study Japanese, but I didn't have the money or the time," said a Myanmarese woman in her 40s who asked that her name be withheld for security reasons.

"The classes are very interesting and all of the students help each other out when one of us does not understand something," she said in Japanese.

The woman arrived in Japan in 1991 after fleeing her country for fear of persecution by the military junta due to her participation in the democracy movement. She said she came here because she thought "Japan was a country of freedom."

"I would like to become a Myanmarese-Japanese interpreter for police in the future," she said. "To do that, I needed to learn how to read kanji."

Eri Ishikawa of the nongovernmental Japan Association for Refugees also welcomed the program.

"For these refugees, it is the first time after being recognized that they can actually see a future for themselves," Ishikawa said. "Before now, they did not know what would happen the next day -- they lived in fear that their refugee application would be denied, and that they would be detained and deported."

Japan signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, but for decades there was no facility to aid recognized refugees.

In 1983, the International Refugee Assistance Center was established in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, but it only supported resettlement of Indochinese refugees who started arriving in the late 1970s. More than 10,000 Indochinese refugees and their family members now live in Japan.

In 2002, the center opened its doors to some other refugee hopefuls after the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination warned Japan it must accept refugees under the U.N. convention as well.

JAR's Ishikawa, however, points out that because the IRAC was originally for accepting arriving Indochinese, the program did not address the needs of U.N. convention refugees already living in Japan.

"One of the biggest problems was that (recognized refugees) were not told what their rights or obligations were," Ishikawa said. "For example, one refugee did not know that he had to renew his visa after he had been recognized. Without realizing it, he had become an illegal over-stayer. . . . That is how unstable (their lives) are" even after being recognized.

The IRAC closed in March after Japan officially stopped accepting new Indochinese refugees, and the RHQ Support Center was established in its place to assist the settlement of U.N. convention refugees.

Through a recent survey conducted by JAR, Ishikawa realized many recognized refugees were keen on learning enough Japanese to pursue higher education or to be able to read a newspaper.

"These refugees have only 3D (dirty, difficult, dangerous) jobs," Ishikawa said. "But there are those who are hoping for white-collar jobs."

The center is meanwhile a dream come true for refugee Tin Win, who has been struggling to ensure that U.N. convention refugees gain the same privileges as Indochinese.

Tin Win, from Myanmar, owned a clothing shop in his old country. Due to his involvement as a member of the National League for Democracy's constitution drafting committee, he fled to Japan in 1996 and gained recognition as a refugee three years later.

When he was recognized in 1999, the IRAC was closed to U.N. convention refugees and he was accepted as a "special case."

But once the permission had been granted by the government, Tin Win realized that was just one of many obstacles he had to overcome.

Although Indochinese refugees' medical fees were fully covered, Tin Win was told the center would not take any responsibility for him, his wife and his three children.

He and his family were given only 100 yen each a week for expenses, while Indochinese refugees were given 150,000 yen to help them start to get adjusted when they completed their language program.

"We had no money, not even to buy rice, and I had to borrow money" after he and his family had completed the program, Tin Win said. "I had to rent a 1DK (dining-kitchen) room for five people. We had to eat in the same place, talk in the same place, my children had to study in the same place. It was just like a small cell. It reminded me of the time I was detained (in Myanmar)."

Now, each refugee participating in the RHQ Support Center program who is 16 and older can receive 156,900 yen when they complete the program. Children age 15 and younger get 78,450 yen.

Tin Win, whose children have attended a Japanese school without much trouble, stressed the need for refugees to be able to harmonize in Japanese society.

He pointed out that the government needs to give appropriate financial aid to facilities like the RHQ Support Center so it can be more effective.

"Integration into the community will be beneficial for both sides -- for the refugees and the recipient countries," Tin Win said. "For the future of Japan, I think refugees and immigrants can contribute to understand diversity and to make (Japan's) culture more dynamic."



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