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Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011

Lawyers, NPOs slam Karen refugee resettlement scheme

Staff writers

A group of 18 ethnic Karen refugees arrived at Narita International Airport at the end of September, marking the start of the second year of a pilot third-country resettlement program run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

News photo
Terra firma?: Ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar arrive at Narita International Airport on Sept. 29. The four families will be resettled in Japan under a third-country resettlement pilot program run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. KYODO

The refugees comprise four families who had been living in a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing Myanmar. Japan is the first Asian country to participate in and accept asylum seekers via the three-year pilot program.

Experts, however, say the many difficulties experienced by the first group who arrived last year indicate the resettlement program is in need of considerable improvement.

The government should make the resettlement program more inclusive, and cooperate with nonprofit organizations and refugees already living in Japan to support the new arrivals, they say.

Lawyers representing two families in the first group of Karen refugees allege the government was insufficiently prepared to run the program properly.

On Sept. 26, three days before the second group arrived, four lawyers representing the earlier families submitted a complaint to the Foreign Ministry alleging the refugees were being forced to work far more hours than they were initially told. The two families received training at a farm in Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture.

The farm program followed a six-month Japanese-language course and other guidance to enable them to make a living in Japan. The Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), a foundation contracted by the Foreign Ministry to run the program, is directly responsible for overseeing both the first six months of training and the subsequent six-month farming program.

RHQ handled the first group of Karen refugees and will be responsible for overseeing the program again this year.

Before their farm training began, the two families — one with five children and the other with three — were told that their training would take place between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and they would have the weekends off. But after training started, they were forced to work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, as well as almost every Saturday.

The refugees received ¥120,000 a month in financial support from the government via RHQ, but while their working hours became longer, the amount stayed fixed. Lawyers said the financial support was lower than the minimum wage, and that the families have been living in poverty.

"This is virtually free labor disguised as 'training,' " the lawyers said in the complaint.

The houses the families lived in were also a considerable distance from the farm, forcing one mother to commute two hours each way to take her 2-year-old child to day care, before traveling to the farm for the training. Her health deteriorated and she had to seek medical assistance.

RHQ officials told the families they weren't allowed to have a land-line phone, fax or Internet access, and forbade them from contacting the Karen community in Japan or other nonprofit groups that were willing to help them settle, according to the lawyers. The refugees received no explanation for the restrictions, the lawyers added.

"The families are not used to life in Japan and they have a lot of worries, so it's natural that they want to communicate with the Karen people who are already living here," said Ayane Odagawa, one of the attorneys representing the two families.

Before the families asked the lawyers to represent them, they held several rounds of negotiations with RHQ, but the situation failed to improve.

Odagawa said the language barrier was another major issue. There is a lack of translators in Japan who can speak Karen languages, and not many translators are even sufficiently fluent in Burmese, the official language of Myanmar. Many things were lost in translation, Odagawa said.

"If the government is planning to continue accepting ethnic Karens, it obviously needs to train some of them to serve as translators," she said.

The parents of the two families have finished their six months of training at the farm and are now looking for jobs. They are also working to ensure their children attend Japanese schools.

Under the government plan, Japan will accept around 30 ethnic Karens annually from the Mera camp, the largest refugee site in Thailand. The Karen refugees fled to Thailand mainly because of the long-running and violent conflict between Myanmar's army and Karen rebels.

The three other families in the first group were sent for training at a farm in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture. While details regarding their situation remain unknown, sources said the training was in line with initial explanations. Some observers said Suzuka, which thanks to its large Brazilian community has experience in hosting overseas nationals, may be a better host city for the Karen.

But Myo Myint Swe, a refugee from Myanmar who moved to Japan and as a graduate student is researching Japan's refugee policies at the University of Tokyo, said education minister Masaharu Nakagawa's support in finding a training site for them in his home district was crucial.

With Nakagawa invested in the program's success, RHQ can't afford to make any mistakes in handling the refugees. The selection of the Chiba farm did not involve any politicians, Myo added.

"Unless politicians become involved, I don't think these programs will work," Myo said. "To improve the program and continue accepting refugees after the first three years, I believe it's important to include politicians in the process."

RHQ told The Japan Times that it has asked the Foreign Ministry to handle all media inquiries and refused comment on the resettlement program.

Hiroki Takabayashi, an official in the Foreign Ministry's Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Division, which coordinates the resettlement program, said the ministry is currently verifying the facts with RHQ and will not be making any comment at the present time.

"We understand that the refugees enrolled in the third-country resettlement program are facing various difficulties adjusting to their lives in Japan, and we do feel the need to review the program and discuss how we can improve it in the future," he said.

As for the second group that arrived in September, Takabayashi said they will begin a six-month training program identical to that undertaken by the first group. They will receive Japanese-language lessons and other guidance to help with daily necessities in their new lives.

For fiscal 2011, the ministry's budget for the resettlement program comes to ¥113 million. For the Japanese-language training, the Cultural Affairs Agency, under the education ministry, has a budget of ¥15 million.

The welfare ministry, which will support job skills training for the Karen refugees and assist their search for employment, said it will tap the ¥24.56 million allocated for support training and employment searches of everyone awarded refugee status in Japan.

Various NPOs and Myanmar refugees living in Japan, who were completely excluded when the program began last year, warned that a lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess whether the training is adequate.

Hiroaki Ishii of the Japan Association for Refugees, which supports people seeking asylum in Japan, said multiple NPOs participate in supporting newcomers in other countries, including the United States and Australia, which accept thousands of refugees through the third-country resettlement program.

The Japanese government and NPOs must collaborate to help resettle the Karen refugees, Ishii said.

"Internationally, collaboration among central and local governments and civil society is regarded as the norm, but this hasn't even been considered (by the central government)," he said.

The lawyers representing the two families from the first group said they have asked the Foreign Ministry to hold a meeting involving government officials, NPOs and lawyers working to support asylum seekers so that ideas and opinions on improving the system can be shared. They said this is vital to prevent this year's group, as well as the Myanmar refugees who arrive in the future, from experiencing similar difficulties after arriving in Japan.

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