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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

Myanmar refugees to try resettling

Pilot project to select 90 in Thai camps eligible to live in Japan


Staff writer

As Japan prepares to take in Myanmarese from Thai refugee camps, it is important that the communities they resettle in fully support their integration into society, experts said at a recent Tokyo symposium held by the Foreign Ministry.

In fiscal 2010, Japan will begin a three-year pilot program to accept 90 refugees residing in Thailand just across the border from junta-ruled Myanmar, becoming the first Asian country to take in refugees living in foreign camps.

Refugees are increasing in number, but their resettlement in third countries is not keeping up with the pace, Mitsuko Shino, a Foreign Ministry director of humanitarian affairs, told the Feb. 5 symposium.

"Japan will take social responsibility by starting this program," she said, adding the project will reflect the viewpoint of the receiving community.

There are currently 110,000 Myanmarese refugees in Thai border camps, which have existed for more than 20 years, but not all of them want to move away. Since the 2005 start of a resettlement program, about 30,000 have been relocated to other countries, mainly the United States as well as Canada and Australia.

Japan plans to select 30 refugees a year from the Mae La camp in Tak Province in northwest Thailand, after interviewing people approved by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Those chosen will receive three to four weeks of classes on Japanese language and culture and undergo health checks prior to leaving Thailand.

Daniel Alkhal, a representative for UNHCR, which identifies refugees in need of resettlement and assesses their eligibility, praised the quality of the program despite its small scale, and expressed hope that the people selected ultimately gain permanent residence and citizenship in Japan.

"Integration is a psychological process on both sides," said Dominique Collinge, a minister counselor for the Permanent Mission of Canada in Geneva.

Canada has to date taken in 2,600 Myanmarese from Thai refugee camps, according to UNHCR, and grants permanent resident status upon arrival and citizenship after three years. The government runs the Host Program, where native families are coupled with immigrants to share evening entertainment or trips to the supermarket.

"We accept resettlement refugees because they need us, not because we need them," Collinge said, noting refugees bear the responsibility of having to pay back the loan for initial travel and medical costs.

"We tell them you will not be assisted all the time; you will have to work. And they have the pride of reimbursement," he said, noting 90 percent have paid their debt.

According to Irena Vojackova-Sollorano, a regional representative for International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency that oversees part of the resettlement process, refugees from tropical forests may have a hard time adjusting to colder, urban environments, and their education level is varied.

"Some of them have never had monthly salaries, so we practice job interviews with them. We also teach them how to behave on a plane," she said. "But the most important point is that they are very much eager to learn and work."

Upon arriving in Japan, the refugees will reside in specially allocated facilities in the Tokyo metropolitan area. They will receive food and clothes for a week and undertake a six-month assistance program, including language training, employment consultations and help in sending their children to school.

"This is necessary to reach the minimum standard needed to live in Japan," said Hiroshi Karube, director general of the Refugee Assistance Headquarters, a quasi-governmental organization.

After the assistance program is completed, the refugees will continue to receive periodic support in various areas.

According to UNHCR, there are 11.4 million refugees worldwide, more than half of them in Asia. About 1 percent are in need of resettlement, with 19 countries currently taking 69,610 a year. Of them, the U.S. takes in 50,000.

Japan has accepted about 11,000 Indochinese refugees since the late 1970s until recently.

One who resettled in Japan was Ponnareth Kugo. Born in 1964 in Cambodia, she fled to Thailand during the bloody Pol Pot regime.

"The resettlement country is like a foster parent," said Kugo, who married a Japanese in 1988 and obtained Japanese citizenship. "Refugees do not need sympathy. Their greatest joy is to be treated as equal."

Collinge noted: "It really takes time to make a resettlement refugee program successful. You have to ask the refugees what they want — it must be a dual process. You have to make the refugees love Japan, and you do that by making them feel welcome."

When asked how to increase public support, he replied, "by talking about it, like this."



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