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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011
Karen refugees snub farm, try luck in Tokyo
By ALEX MARTIN
The first two ethnic Karen families who arrived from Myanmar under a third-country resettlement program have rejected an offer to continue working on a farm in Chiba Prefecture where they were training, and are currently residing in Tokyo, one of their lawyers said Wednesday.
The two families, seeking asylum after staying in a refugee camp in Thailand, came to Japan last year as part of a three-year pilot program run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. They had been undergoing farm training in Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture, under a government-sponsored program.
In late September, lawyers representing the two families submitted a proposal to the Foreign Ministry demanding improvements to their working conditions, which they claimed involved extremely long hours and physically demanding work.
Shogo Watanabe, one of their lawyers, said that after deciding against signing a contract with the farm at the end of their six-month training program, the two families are now living and searching for jobs in Tokyo.
"We are on the verge of finding them jobs," Watanabe said, adding that one of the families is living in a rented apartment, and the other is in a shelter.
The families are no longer receiving subsidies from the government, he added.
An official at the Foreign Ministry's Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Division said the two families are no longer under its supervision and it doesn't know their whereabouts.
"We currently have no means of knowing what the refugees are doing," the official said.
The Refugee Assistance Headquarters, a foundation contracted by the government to run the program, refused to comment, saying the Foreign Ministry is handling all media inquiries on the refugees and the training program.
In the proposal submitted to the Foreign Ministry in September, the two families complained that RHQ made them work extremely long hours and forbade them from having land-line phones, fax machines or Internet access.
Based on its own investigation, however, the Foreign Ministry said some of the claims were contradictory and added that RHQ in fact recommended to the refugees that they set up Internet access as their cellphone bills were ballooning due to international calls they were making to relatives back home.
Watanabe said miscommunication between the refugees and RHQ was a big part of the problem and called for the issue to be urgently addressed, especially as the second group of refugees recently arrived in Japan and have started their training.
Although Japan's U.N.-promoted third-country resettlement program was launched to much fanfare, its shortcomings were given fresh emphasis in recent comments by a 46-year-old refugee from Myanmar: "To be honest, I'm not happy that I came to Japan."
His comments at a recent news conference shed light on the issues both the government and society must tackle in order to help the refugees better integrate here.
Although the government-funded six-month support program — the first by an Asian country — was launched to high expectations around the world, experts say considerable improvements are needed.
In particular, they say, the program's Japanese language study portion, held among other lectures on Japanese social systems and practices that refugees attend once arriving, is not enough to empower them to live on their own.
They also urge more involvement by communities to help the refugees settle in — a crucial factor for a successful resettlement, according to a report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on the third-country resettlement program.
The Myanmar refugee, a father of three who came to Japan a year ago from a camp in Thailand, spoke of the problems he encountered in the program at a news conference in late September.
Speaking at a symposium last month, the 46-year-old man said his life in rural Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture — where he and his wife underwent vocational training at a farm following the six-month support program — was not what he had expected or what he had been told about back in Thailand's Mera camp.
The man said he did not expect his 17-year-old son to have a 2½-hour commute to and from his junior high school — an evening school. Nor did he expect that he and his wife would sometimes work more than 10 hours a day — sometimes on Saturdays — and from as early as 4 a.m., with monthly pay capped at around ¥120,000 per person.
Because of these conditions, both his and the other family in Chiba have refused farming work and are looking for jobs in Tokyo.
"I'm grateful to the Japanese government for accepting us, but as I am not so young, I'm concerned about my children," the man said at the symposium in Tokyo. "I want them to be people who can be nice to other people. To that end, they need to receive education in a safe environment," he said.
He added that his family felt lonely and isolated due to a lack of nearby support groups and also because the other refugee family in Chiba lived far away.
Yumiko Endo, who has long taught Japanese to foreign students, said picking up the language is a prerequisite for living comfortably here. "It requires a concentrated training period to learn Japanese. About two years is appropriate," said Endo, head of the Shibuya and Shinjuku schools of Arc Academy, a Japanese language school.
Masaharu Nakagawa, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, also admitted at the symposium that the six-month period is insufficient.
"There should be an opportunity where the refugees can continue their language lessons even if they are employed."