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Monday, Dec. 21, 2009

READERS' FUND

Refugees struggle to survive funding cuts

Groups try to provide a lifeline for people cut off from vital services


Staff writer

Last in a series

Since the government last May changed the way it distributes funds to asylum-seekers, nonprofit organizations have had to deal with an influx of callers in critical situations.

News photo
Looking for a way out: A mother and child from east Africa who are seeking asylum in Japan receive counseling from a member of the Japan Association for Refugees in June. The two lost their government support earlier in the year, leaving them little money to buy essential goods. COURTESY OF JAPAN ASSOCIATION FOR REFUGEES

The office of the Japan Association for Refugees in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, sometimes gets 15 to 20 visits a day from refugees who have been cut off from government aid, according to Mika Sakurai, a staff member of the NPO.

"Until spring most people could just about survive, but now their minimum living standards are not being supported and they don't have anywhere to live," she said.

The number of applicants seeking refugee status in Japan this year is approaching last year's unusually large figure of 1,599, Sakurai said. Two years ago it was half that size.

In a bid to dole out limited funds efficiently, the government has shifted priority to the neediest refugees, including pregnant women and those with serious illnesses. But this has left more than 100 people without a home or food, and many are out of work, Sakurai said.

With the support of The Japan Times Readers' Fund, JAR helped three refugees, including a Nepalese man whose government support was cut off in April. He faced a gap of three weeks when he had no money, and as a diabetic also needed medical help, Sakurai said.

Many of the refugees who no longer receive government aid are waiting two or three months just to have their situation reassessed through interviews, she added.

The majority of asylum-seekers who contact JAR are from Myanmar, although this year saw an increase in Sri Lankan callers, Sakurai said.

"We also have a great number of calls from African people, because they don't yet have a community established in Japan where they can go to for support," she said.

With the economy slamming the labor market, foreign workers have been hit particularly hard, according to Ajia Yuko-no Ie (the Friendly Asians Home), another nonprofit organization in Shinjuku Ward.

"They're being sacked just because they're foreign, or their work hours are being reduced so much that it's like they're being killed slowly," said Taeko Kimura, managing director of the family-run NPO.

FAH, partly through support from The Japan Times Readers' Fund, helps refugees with infectious diseases and foreign students who graduated from college here but are unable to find work.

The majority of people seeking help are from Myanmar, although the NPO is determined to remain neutral on the junta-ruled country and the political stances of the refugees.

"If we don't help these people they would die from hunger. It's a matter of life and death," Kimura said.

One of FAH's most earnest missions is to ensure accurate reports about Myanmar are being spread among the refugees, who have different political stances and ethnic backgrounds. To help with this, the NPO has taken the rare step of installing the computer font needed to provide news in the refugees' native language.

"We want to eliminate the contradictions that come from accurate information not being spread," Kimura said.

But this new project cannot be completed without a donation of new computers because the group's current PCs are so old that some pages cannot be read, according to Kimura.

FAH also wants to correct misconceptions about Myanmar held by those Japanese who see the country only in terms of the conflict between the junta and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said Kazuo Kimura, Taeko Kimura's son and director of the NPO.

For example, security measures and transport systems run by local governments or private companies, rather than the junta, are secure and run smoothly, he said.

"And though telephone systems are not well-established, Myanmar people actually have a sophisticated use of the Internet and access it frequently on their cell phones," he added.

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