Burmese asylum seekers and Japan
Burmese junta fuels influx
In 2008 there was a sharp spike in the number of people seeking asylum in Japan, and although only 6 percent of those processed were recognized by the government as refugees, they totalled 57 compared with 41 the year before.
|Speaking out: A protester outside the Burmese embassy in Tokyo|
Eri Ishikawa of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) attributes the rise — which included many applicants from Burma (which the military junta calls Myanmar) — to growing sympathy here following the brutal suppression of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and the military junta’s woeful response to the humanitarian disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
Many Burmese in Japan now also report that, sensing a more welcoming environment, they have filed applications for the first time, or reapplied.
The Justice Ministry reports that 1,599 asylum seekers applied for refugee status in 2008, up from 954 in 2006. Of last year’s applications, 918 were processed, resulting in 57 people being granted refugee status under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
To date, since Japan signed the convention in 1981, it has accepted a total of 508 so-called convention refugees from all over the world. In comparison, since 2006 the United States has accepted 15,000 Burmese alone from refugee camps in Thailand under the “third-country resettlement program” — and in the 2007 financial year its overall refugee target was 70,000.
In Japan, about half the asylum seekers in 2008 were from Burma, and 38 of those received refugee visas. In addition, 360 asylum seekers, most from Burma, were granted humanitarian visas — up from 80 in 2007. However, humanitarian visas do not confer refugee status, and so recipients don’t qualify for the same benefits and security of status as holders of refugee visas.
But for the Japanese government, humanitarian visas are attractive because its obligations are not as burdensome as for convention refugees. For example, recipients only get limited social welfare assistance. Japan also has the right to revoke such visas at its discretion.
In contrast, convention refugees have access to the full gamut of social-welfare programs, and get assimilation help such as language classes from the state-funded Refugee Assistance Headquarters.
Nonetheless, through refugee and humanitarian visas, the Japanese government in 2008 boosted its “protection rate” (providing some legal status and security to asylum seekers) to about 45 percent of applicants (417 out of 918) — sharply up on previous years, when it languished in single digits, at around 6 percent to 8 percent.
This shift is expected to attract a further increase in applications, as asylum seekers — not only from Asia — will believe their odds have improved in a country long virtually closed to refugees.
However, while Japan maintains its strict terms for granting convention refugee status, its upturn in granting humanitarian visas primarily aims to address the needs of asylum seekers with roots in Japan — including many who have married here and are raising families. It is hoped that this, too, will demonstrate to the international community that Japan is not turning its back on such problems.
According to Yuki Akimoto, an attorney who serves as director of BurmaInfo, an NGO that disseminates information about Burma and lobbies Japanese politicians and officials, Japan has long been torn in its approach to the country. Tokyo, she says, basically favors cozying up to Burma’s military junta, but also reluctantly supports international sanctions aimed at pressuring the junta to improve human rights, release political prisoners and engage in political reform.
However, since 2007’s point-blank shooting by a Burmese soldier of a Japanese news cameraman, Kenji Nagai, while he was working for APF covering a demonstration led by unarmed monks in the capital Yangon, Tokyo has taken a tougher stand toward the junta.
|Torchbearer: Eri Ishikawa, a founder of the Japan Association for Refugees|
Now, following the junta’s crackdown on all dissent, Japanese authorities are taking a more sympathetic view of the plight of Burmese exiles here and their claims of facing political persecution if they are deported back home.
Ishikawa, who helped establish JAR in 1999, says, “It is important that Japan can be relied on to do its part and truly help those who really need help.” She is encouraged that even though helping refugees doesn’t draw any votes, more politicians are becoming interested and understand the value of assisting asylum seekers.
BurmaInfo’s Akimoto also believes that sympathy for the people of Burma has increased precisely because of the junta’s unbridled brutality toward them and its failure to help them raise their standard of living.
JAR is chronically underfunded, and in the current downturn is trying to cope with falling contributions from some large donors just as ever more asylum seekers are in need of assistance, ranging from legal advice to accommodation and basic household necessities.
However, a visit to its offices reveals a conference room stacked high with donated items, including a few men’s suits hanging in the corner. JAR’s remit evidently extends well beyond advocacy and counseling, since the suits are to help asylum seekers blend in by not looking like stereotypical namin (literally, “those with problems,” but also the term for refugees), and so avoid harassment and arrest.
The government, too, is running out of money allocated for the support of asylum seekers due to a near-doubling in their numbers over the past year. Since asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their applications are assessed — a process that takes two years on average — they depend entirely on assistance.
Currently, a family of four is eligible for about ¥135,000 in living expenses per month (¥1,500 per adult and ¥750 per child per day), plus a monthly maximum of ¥60,000 in housing support. In principle, such support is limited to four months, but since such people lack medical insurance and are not permitted to work, that period is insufficient and is often extended.
The unexpected problem is that the number of people receiving assistance from the Refugee Assistance Headquarters jumped from 95 a month in 2007 to more than 180 by the end of 2008.
In the 2008/09 financial year, the total budget for such assistance was ¥78 million. As that budget was exhausted by the end of 2008, though, the government was left scrambling to secure supplementary funds to carry the program through until the end of March, when the fiscal year ends.
Ishikawa expects the number of applicants to continue rising, citing the ongoing problems in Burma, the war in Sri Lanka and growing numbers fleeing violence in war-torn regions in Africa.
In Ishikawa’s view, the current official limit of four months’ support is unrealistic, and should be extended to two years — or as long as it takes for the government to review the asylum application. Alternatively, the government could allow asylum seekers to work while their applications are processed. Certainly, from interviewing numerous asylum seekers, it’s clear that the limited government support forces many to work illegally, which makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and also deportation.
Now, as Japan prepares for a new influx of asylum seekers, and is launching a pilot program for the resettlement of refugees, advocates believe there is a pressing need to have an open discourse about its policies — and to improve conditions for those seeking, or already granted, protection.
Anxiety haunts a Burmese family left in official limbo
“All my Burmese friends are getting humanitarian visas, but not me,” laments Hla Aye Maung, who has lived in Japan for the past 12 years.
|Living in fear: Hla Aye with his wife and daughter in their central Tokyo apartment where he constantly lives in fear of forcible deportation. JEFF KINGSTON|
At one time, Hla Aye, 40, worked on a cargo boat that plied the Pacific, but his life suddenly changed in 1996 when he jumped ship in Yokohama and came to Tokyo. In 2003, when he was out shopping, he was picked up by a police patrol and spent the next 18 months in detention after requesting asylum and receiving legal assistance in his bid for refugee status.
When he was released in 2005, Hla Aye was granted a provisional resident’s visa that he still renews every three months — despite a series of legal setbacks. Among these, his request for asylum was denied by the Justice Ministry, so he filed suit in district court, but it ruled against him in 2007. His subsequent appeal to the high court was rejected in 2008, and since then he has been living on borrowed time.
Meanwhile, Hla Aye’s debts have piled up due to his legal battles and an expensive hospitalization of his daughter, but he has not requested any assistance or relief. He has provided for his family, and they live in a well-kept apartment in Nishi-Nippori, Tokyo, where his daughter is in kindergarten. Another baby is on the way.
Understandably, Hla Aye constantly worries about the future, fearing he might be forcibly repatriated. He is active in the Arakan League for Democracy, regularly demonstrates outside the Burmese Embassy in Tokyo and is a high-profile opponent in Japan of the military junta.
His contention that if he returned to Burma he would face political persecution is certainly valid in a country where a widely despised government relies on fear and intimidation.
Ironically, when his case was being reviewed, he was told that his application was rejected because the U.S. State Department did not list the people of Arakan (officially known as Rakhine) as being targeted for political persecution.
However, having visited Sittwe, Hla Aye’s home town and the capital of Arakan, at the end of 2007, I can report that signs of political oppression there are hard to miss. The Saffron Revolution actually started in Sittwe in August 2007 with a mass demonstration led by monks, their ranks swelled by tens of thousands of sympathizers. Then, following the brutal suppression of the monk-led demonstrations in the capital, Yangon, the military clamped down on monasteries known to have been involved.
Indeed, one monastery I visited in Yangon with strong links to Arakan was virtually occupied by the military, some of whom, despite their tattoos, I saw disguised as monks. In Sittwe, I visited ground zero of the local demonstrations, a cluster of ramshackle monasteries where the population of monks had dwindled as the military forced many to leave. In one of the temples, soldiers guarded the entrance with automatic rifles, scowling at visitors, and inside they had turned the main hall into a bivouac.
Meanwhile, at a distance, monks furtively whispered their complaints and voiced their anger at a government that has spread misery among the people.
Elsewhere in Sittwe, people were less circumspect, openly denouncing Senior Gen. Than Shwe’s military junta, while several monks predicted their reincarnation as “shit-eating mangy dogs,” and called on the United States to mount airstrikes targeting them.
The people of Arakan have a reputation as hotheads. Nowhere else on my travels in Burma did I encounter quite the same degree of edgy, outspoken anger — and the large military presence in this province indicates the government also knows what it is up against.
It is thus bizarre to split hairs about who is subject to political persecution in Burma, since — quite simply — everyone is vulnerable to the abuse of power, and the rule of law is only a rumor. Persecution is so routine that it has become the norm. The courts recently handed down incredibly long prison sentences — think 65 years — to monks, comedians, singers, relief workers, intellectuals, journalists and others for engaging in peaceful protests or allegedly making the government look bad.
It was as if the judges were vying with each other to impress their masters with the excessiveness of their zealotry, an incarceration madness that will cut lives short and ensure they end behind bars.
It can therefore only be hoped that Japan will grant Hla Aye, and others like him, a humanitarian visa and spare him deportation to a country that so recently gunned down and tortured monks who were peacefully demonstrating — and executed a Japanese news photographer for just doing his job.
Japan charts a new course on refugees
Long frowned on for its reluctance to significantly assist with a growing global crisis, this country is at last beginning to set the record straight
Beginning in 2010, Japan will inaugurate a three-year pilot program to accept 30 refugees a year from camps nestled along the remote border between Thailand and Burma.
|Pushing ahead: Saburo Takizawa, a professor at the United Nations University in Tokyo, and a former U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Japan, believes this country’s erstwhile shirking on refugees was a mistaken policy, and it is important that now Asia, led by Japan, is beginning to look after its own. SABURO TAKIZAWA|
This is a so-called third-country resettlement program for displaced people living in foreign refugee camps who have no chance or desire for repatriation to their home country.
Japan is the first Asian country to accept “resettlement refugees” in a region that produces many, and there are high hopes that the program will expand to the point where it can make a meaningful difference. The stakes are therefore high for the success of this pilot program.
The 100,000 or so refugees from Burma who now live in camps in western Thailand fled from a brutal and incompetent military junta that has misruled their homeland (which it calls Myanmar) since seizing power in 1988. Many of those refugees are desperate to move on and away, and some have known no other life.
There is, though, lots of competition from other displaced people around the world to be accepted by one of the 16 nations that currently receive third-country refugees for resettlement.
But certainly, Japan’s declared intention to accept a total of just 90 refugees over three years is a drop in the bucket compared to the need in the Thai camps. And, on a recent visit to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand where many exiles from Burma live, virtually everyone involved I spoke to about this program criticized it for being an insignificant gesture that reflects badly on the Japanese government.
Indeed, Iceland — with a population of only 300,000, compared to Japan’s 127 million — accepts 30 Palestinian refugees a year. And given the massive need for much larger-scale resettlement — especially for children who have been raised in the Thai camps — it is understandable that Burmese refugees want the Japanese government to act with greater urgency.
But set against Japan’s deeply lackluster record, the government’s intention to accept 90 refugees from Burma between 2010 and 2012 is a major breakthrough. The country’s Justice Ministry issued only 30 refugee visas to asylum seekers in the past four years, 2005-08; and since becoming a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, Japan has accepted only 508 refugees — including a mere 49 through all of the 1990s.
A Jan. 6 editorial this year in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper pointed out the contributions refugees make to their adopted countries, and urged the government to open the doors wider.
“We should welcome refugees from abroad as our new neighbors,” it said. “We hope this will be the first small step on the way toward Japan’s growth into an open society.”
In fact, this is not the first time Japan has accepted refugees for resettlement. Back in the late 1970s, under pressure from the United States in the post-Vietnam War era, the Japanese government accepted nearly 12,000 Indochinese refugees. Initially, the government tried to disperse them widely around the country, but it then found that urban areas provided the best environment for their integration. Since then, some have moved to other countries, but those who stayed prove that refugees pose little risk to Japanese society and are reliable taxpayers with decent jobs, many in second-hand goods, trading and restaurant businesses.
|Outsiders: Having fled their country’s military junta, many Burmese like these in a Thai refugee camp can only wait in hope that a third country will accept them. SABURO TAKIZAWA|
Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), a quasi-government organization sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, was established to help facilitate integration of the Indochinese refugees and their families, to distribute government assistance, to provide language and culture classes, and vocational counseling. In general, the program was a success and wrapped up its activities in 2005. Since then RHQ has provided support for recently recognized convention refugees, including language programs and financial assistance.
When this writer visited a class in Tokyo, all the students were from Burma, so encouraging optimism that the new resettlement refugees from there should also fit well into existing programs.
To understand how and why Japan changed its policy on resettlement refugees, I spoke with Saburo Takizawa, a professor at the United Nations University in Tokyo, and the recently retired U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Japan who previously worked for three decades at U.N. organizations in Beirut and in Vienna.
Takizawa explained that he came here with three missions: To change Japan’s policy on resettlement; to reverse the downward trend in Japan’s contributions to the UNHCR; and to promote UNHCR activities in Japan regarding refugees and asylum seekers. He took on this assignment, he said, because he knew Japan’s shirking on refugees was a mistaken policy. Asia produces many refugees, and in his view it is important that now Asia, led by Japan, is beginning to look after its own.
Reflecting on his tenure, Takizawa now modestly says, “The glass is half full.”
In his view, the UNHCR was not as effective an advocate for refugees in Japan as it could be because it engaged in public confrontations with the Justice Ministry. Having formerly served in the ministry’s Immigration Bureau, Takizawa sought a quiet dialogue with his former colleagues. He, too, wanted Japan to accept more refugees — but decided on a change in tactics.
Fortuitously, one of his former colleagues, Toshio Inami, was director of the Immigration Bureau in 2007 when Takizawa assumed his UNHCR post. At the time, Takizawa commissioned a study about the experience of the Indochinese refugees, hoping to show the government that refugees are law- abiding and self-sufficient, making contributions rather than problems.
Even before the study was completed, though, Takizawa’s efforts were bearing fruit with the establishment of a clandestine study group. They kept their deliberations secret to avoid stirring political opposition over this controversial issue until they had prepared an acceptable proposal and drummed up political support.
|Speaking out: Burmese people outside their Tokyo embassy protest the long-term house arrest in Yangon of pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.|
In addition, Inami had only a year until retirement, so he had little or nothing to lose by trying to push through what constitutes a major shift in government policy. And, like Takizawa, he regarded this as a chance to leave a positive legacy, both at home and abroad.
Observers often comment on the slow pace of decision-making in policy- gridlocked Japan, but the tectonic shift in resettlement policy occurred rapidly. By the end of 2007, then Minister of Justice Kunio Hatoyama — whose wife is Australian — was briefed about the plan to establish a pilot resettlement project and gave it the green light.
Then, after extensive debate, the Cabinet signed off on the small pilot program.
Takizawa counters critics who deride the size of the pilot program, saying: “The numbers are not important. What is important is that the government adopted a pro-resettlement policy. Knowing how bureaucracies work, and given all the hours of meetings spent establishing the pilot project, this program will continue and the numbers will increase.”
In Takizawa’s view, the low number of refugees in Japan reflects the low number of applications by asylum seekers. As he has pointed out, the Justice Ministry’s approval rate on asylum applications has remained stable at around 6 to 8 percent — so the key to increasing the number of refugees is to make Japan a more attractive destination for asylum seekers, so that more apply.
Takizawa credits Inami with playing a decisive role in the sudden spike in humanitarian visas granted, since they are issued at the discretion of the director of the Immigration Bureau. By issuing so many more of these visas — up from 80 in 2007, to 360 in 2008 — Takizawa believes the government is sending a positive message to would-be asylum seekers.
However, critics maintain that humanitarian visas are no substitute for refugee status, as they confer less security and support and mask an evasion of responsibilities both to the international community and the asylum seekers themselves. Certainly they have a point, and it is the job of advocates to press for further reforms. But it is also important to recognize what has been accomplished against very steep odds, as the closed door has opened a crack.
The outcomes may not be ideal, but the Burmese I meet who have received humanitarian visas express relief and feel fortunate — while others envy their good luck.
For people who have lived on the margins, endured poverty, anxiety and all the setbacks and challenges of the disenfranchised, a chance for a new life is greatly valued, even if it is a pragmatic compromise. According to advocates, however, granting more convention refugee visas remains key — a policy they say will win Japan more international stature, better serve asylum seekers and provide them with travel documents so they can relocate wherever they wish.
Takizawa maintains that 2008 was a turning point, when Japan abandoned the “vicious cycle” of keeping the door tightly shut, thus discouraging asylum seekers, in favor of what he terms a “virtuous cycle” of increasing the protection rate by providing more humanitarian visas and announcing the resettlement plan. These, he believes, are changes that will attract more asylum seekers and so lead to more refugees being accepted.
In order to attract more refugees, he says, it is also important to develop refugee communities that can assist newcomers in adjusting to life in Japan.
In addition, the virtuous cycle also depends on the pilot program being seen to be a success in order to pave the way for continued government, community and employer support. To improve the odds, the resettlement refugees will be carefully vetted and the most promising candidates included. Takizawa believes that some of those in need of medical care will also be included.
The Justice Ministry’s image has improved dramatically as the media reports on these positive developments in refugee policy. Previously, it was routinely hammered by international organizations and domestic NGOs for its draconian and legalistic stance. Now, though, it sees the value of promoting reform.
Certainly when Sadako Ogata, former head of the UNHCR and current director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), told The Japan Times in June 2007 that the Justice Ministry lacked a humanitarian sensibility, her criticism was taken to heart by some in the ministry who favored reform. Coming from such a respected figure, her remark proved useful in convincing others that it was time to change and repair the ministry’s battered reputation.
Positive PR about recent initiatives encourages usually risk-averse, precedent- tied bureaucrats to reconsider existing practices and create a more positive environment for policy reform. Even in faceless bureaucracies, people make a difference, and Inami and Takizawa deserve kudos for prodding and persuading colleagues to embrace reforms.
Whether this means that the pilot program can be translated into the large-scale program that is desperately needed, however, remains uncertain. Consequently, their legacy — and the lives of refugees languishing in the Thai border camps — hangs in the balance.