President Thein Sein begins his state visit to Japan on Friday, a country with strong historic and economic links to Burma. Yet Japan is also struggling to find a solution to the issue of Burmese asylum seekers on its own soil.
Last year marked a record high for the rejection of refugee applications in Japan. Tokyo granted refugee status to only seven asylum seekers in 2011, making for a refusal rate of 99.97 percent in the first instance and 99.4 percent upon appeal, according to figures from the Japanese Ministry of Justice.
The number of asylum seekers denied refugee status but granted permission to stay on humanitarian grounds, but without further government support, has also been decreasing―from 501 three years ago, to 363 in 2010 and 248 last year.
Yet, the Burmese have been the largest number of refugee status applicants in Japan throughout the last decade. A total of 491 Burmese citizens applied for refugee status in Japan last year, marking an increase of 44 percent compared to 2010.
“Most of them are not majority ethnic Burmese but ethnic minorities,” Shiho Tanaka, of the Japan Association for Refugees, told The Irrawaddy.
Shogo Watanabe, chairman of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, claims that the reason for the high rejection rate is the structure of the institution handling these applications―the Immigration Bureau.
He has dealt with around 50 Burmese refugee cases throughout his legal career, and many more through counseling.
“The department handling refugee status applications and the department handling deportations used to be on the same floor of the same building―left side refugee applications, right side deportations,” he said. “That has changed, now it’s just another floor in the same building.”
For Watanabe, the organization’s structure leads to an unfair process in the handling of the refugee applications. “Their mission is to doubt whether this person is a refugee,” he said.
When meeting with The Irrawaddy in his Tokyo office, Watanabe received news that he had just won a case at the city’s District Court. A 35-year-old ethnic Chin pastor from Thantlang Township in Chin State was appealing against the rejection of his refugee application.
After a visit to a Chin National Front camp in India in 2005, his father and the chief of his village were arrested. Because he was unable to return home, the guerrilla movement arranged for a fake Indian passport with a real Japanese visa.
He arrived in Japan in March 2006 and applied for refugee status, which was rejected in September 2008. Two years later his appeal was rejected.
The court’s decision last week will not grant him refugee status, as the Immigration Department can decide again on the matter or might decide to bring the case to the High Court. Watanabe is currently fighting another Chin case at the High Court.
Sixty Burmese citizens were deported from Japan last year, according to government figures.
“Japan historically enjoyed being a mono-cultural society and still enjoys it”, said Miki Kajimura from Tokyo University, who has extensively studied the Burmese community in Japan.
“Sooner or later, Japan will have to realize that it has no choice but to accept foreigners, including refugees, as it will soon face labor shortage, if not already does,” she said.
In 2008, the Japanese government approved an experimental resettlement program from refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border to Japan.
Under the initial plan, 30 Burmese refugees from Mae La refugee camp were to be chosen by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Japanese government to be resettled in Japan, and given language and job training.
“The resettlement program has not worked out in Japan, as some, including myself, suspected,” Kajimura told The Irrawaddy. “The government merely used the Karen refugees to show that Japan too contributes to the international resolution of refugee problems.”
For every year since its commencement in 2010, the program has not reached the target number of 30 resettled. This year, the program was expanded to two more camps, but has so far attracted only ten refugees, Yuki Moriya from the UNHCR Japan office in Tokyo told The Irrawaddy last week.
Controversy arose regarding the working conditions of the first batch of resettled Karen last year. Two families were sent for job training at a farm in Chiba, near Tokyo, where they held a press conference complaining of long working hours and lack of convenient nursing facilities.
“Even though they were not of good health, and even if their children had a fever, the mother was expected to work,” Shogo Watanabe, who also represents one of the families, told The Irrawaddy.
For the Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), a semi-governmental organization in charge of the refugee program and supporting refugees and asylum seekers, the problem was not their conditions, but their attitude.
“They were more looking for a paid-by-the-hour type of job. They were not prepared to meet the expectations of the [company],” said RHQ’s Hidehiro Hosaka.
“It depends on the determination of people, it depends on perseverance,” he said.
The second batch of 18 refugees has completed a six-month language program in March and started to work at an undisclosed shoe manufacturing factory in Misato at the beginning of April, Hosaka said.
“The shoemaker is not a sweat shop, that shoemaker produces expensive shoes for ladies sold in the main street of Ginza,” said Hosaka, referring to Tokyo’s high-end shopping area.
The resettlement program, which is mostly sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is set to continue until 2015. “The government will decide after five years whether to extend it,” said Hosaka.
Of the first batch, two families are living in Tokyo, three others live in Mie Prefecture working at a Shitake mushroom factory. When contacted, one family refused to talk to The Irrawaddy for fear of repercussions.
“Most Burmese refugees in Japan have to work hard for long hours not only to support their life, but also their political activities,” said Kajimura.
For the so-far 45 Karen resettled from Mae La refugee camp, life hasn’t been easy either, said Watanabe. “It is very difficult for them to have a sustainable life in Japan,” he said. “It is very difficult for them to communicate in Japanese.”
“The first phase may be difficult, but Japan has a lot to offer, this an exciting and enjoyable place,” said Hosaka. “Once they are in Japan, we will extend assistance for this entire generation.”