Karen refugees to start resettling in Japan next month

Starting toward the end of September, a group of 27 Karen refugees will resettle in Japan.

The refugees currently live in Thailand, part of more than 100,000 Karen people living in refugee camps in Thailand, along with thousands more living among the Thailand general population. The Karen are natives of Burma, where their people have been waging guerrilla warfare against the central government since the end of World War II. In response, the Burmese army has waged a campaign of torching villages and terrorizing people to try and weaken support for the insurgency. Talk about a Long War.

You can get many details from this English-language Asahi report (emphasis mine).

Twenty-seven refugees from five families–all members of minority Karen tribe–will be relocated from the camp to Japan in late September. They will be the first group to arrive under a “third-country” resettlement program adopted by Japan, which has long been criticized as closed to refugees.

The program is designed to help refugees in camps outside their home countries.

“We have no worries as long as we stay here,” [one of the 27] said in Karen, as he sat on his knees. “But I want to see our lives improve. I want my children to have goals and dreams. I will go to Japan to live a new life.”

He said he wanted to farm in Japan. “I believe I will manage if I make the effort.”

Since late July, those accepted under the resettlement program have been taking one-month training courses from the International Organization for Migration, which was commissioned by the Japanese government.

Initially, 32 members of six families were accepted, but a family of five decided not to move because of Japan’s high prices.

A 36-year-old man in a family of seven did not hide his anxieties about living in Japan.

“Away from Myanmar, without knowing the language, how can I possibly find a job soon?” he said. “But there is no future in this camp. I will do my best trying to become a naturalized citizen.”

An 8-year-old girl has also set goals for her life in a new country.

“I want to go to school and make many friends. I want to get in a car, too,” she said.

Japan plans to accept about 90 refugees from Myanmar in three years from this fiscal year.

Best of luck to them. The government apparently plans to train them in Tokyo for a while before finding a suitable place for them. In any case, relocation of refugees is tough. The children will probably have the easiest time assimilating. In Bangkok, Mrs. Adamu used to work with Burmese refugees, including several Karen. They often had only just arrived in Bangkok, and because it was their first big city, a lot surprised them. They’d get scared on elevators, throw up in taxis, never been bowling or seen a movie in a theater before. These folks are in for some serious culture shock, especially the adults. The first winter will probably be a little scary.

Little boy learning Japanese writing, courtesy Yahoo News

This move by the Japanese government comes after years of pressure from the US, the EU and other nations that participate in refugee relocation programs. Japan accepts a fraction of applications for refugee status made on Japanese soil, but it has previously not taken part in third-party settlement programs. In contrast, the US receives tens of thousands of refugees every year resettling for various reasons, recently in the aftermath of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In recent years, upward of 80% of Japan’s refugee applications have been filed by people from Burma because of stepped-up pressure by the junta and pressure on overflowing refugee camps. There are an estimated 10,000 or so Burmese living in Japan, with a particular concentration in the Takadanobaba area of Tokyo (notable for delicious and authentic Burmese restaurants). Near the industrial complexes in greater Kanto, Burmese workers can be found work

In the past, Japan accepted many “boat people,” refugees from Vietnam who fled political persecution after the communists won control of the country in the mid 70s.

The Vietnamese experience in Japan has been mixed. English Wikipedia actually has a fairly detailed article on this, noting that while many of the original refugees had trouble integrating, many of the 2nd generation are completely assimilating, taking Japanese names and perhaps not even mentioning their non-Japanese heritage to people they meet on a daily basis. With their distinctly Southeast Asian features, the Karen may not have that option.

It’s unclear at this point where the new arrivals will live or how exactly they will be taken care of (unclear to me at least; I am sure MOFA has plans), but generally they can be expected to receive some form of government assistance for the foreseeable future. They will also benefit from being first, which will bring extra attention and a greater commitment to get things right. But eventually they and their children will have to form some connection and relationship with Japanese society, along with the hundreds if not thousands more who will follow. Much like the test groups of Indonesian and Filipina nurses, these refugees will be yet another test case for Japan’s immigrant experience.

21 thoughts on “Karen refugees to start resettling in Japan next month”

  1. A welcome development, although I’m not sure what to say about 90 refugees over three years. That’s better than nothing, but still little more than nothing.

  2. Sure, 90 is a small number, but I think it’s better this way because small successes can be built upon. Eventually Japanese politicians will begin uttering the words immigration policy and people will be amenable enough to deal with a ramping up of the number of refugees living here. Maybe.

  3. I saw the headline here and thought, “wow, Japan is finally letting them in.” Then I saw it was 27 people… that’s pretty pathetic. Not even worth writing about, in my opinion… I would bet that more than that many illegal immigrants arrive in Japan every day.

  4. Given that Japan contributes very little to creating the refugees in the first place, taking anyone at all could be considered somewhat generous. The good thing about this is that it can basically only go up from here.

  5. I’m afraid I can’t read Swedish, but I do believe I’ve seen a reference to that story before.

    Not to defend US policy in this area, but if history is any guide they will be taking in far more Iraqi refugees in the future. The US took in almost a million Vietnamese refugees, but only starting in large numbers several years after the Vietnam War was over. Yes, they should be letting more in – especially those who are in danger directly because of collaboration (I’ve seen/heard many stories about such situations), but I still expect that in 10-20 years there will be a few hundred thousand more Iraqis living in the States.

  6. If Japan is going to have any infrastructure at all for handling refugees, I think they should accept more than 27 just for the sake of cost efficiency.

  7. Roy, whatever you do don’t ask Liberians about US refugee policy (at least as it covers Liberians). That was a carefully thought-out screw-over.

  8. “Given that Japan contributes very little to creating the refugees in the first place, taking anyone at all could be considered somewhat generous. ”

    Hardly. It shouldn’t be colonial or imperialist guilt which motivates countries to take in refugees. It’s simple humanitarian aid.

  9. I’m actually wondering whether this is good decision.

    There are more than 27 Burmese refugee wanting refugee status residing in this country already.When I did research fifteen years ago,some said there are more than 30000 Burmese in Japan.When I covered a story five years ago,some of them are having kids without nationality.

  10. I don’t know about Burmese in Japan, but there’s a fair number of refugees in Taiwan, many of whom are now illegal. I think it’s easier for them to slip into Taiwan than Japan since there are so many KMT remnant/descendants in Burma that qualify for Overseas Chinese visas, but have poor documentation, so non-Chinese Burmese can fairly easily trick their way into Taiwan on a provisional entry and then disappear before proving their lineage to get legit status.

  11. I checked immigration’s stats on registered foreigners and NPA’s on illegals, and it looks like there are around 4000 here legally and maybe another 3000 counted as illegal. The NPA stopped breaking out data on Burma in 2004 so they are now lumped together as “other” but before that they had moved from over 4000 to under 3000 illegals. Still, 30k wouldn’t surprise me much on a national level.

    The reasons for the refugees are numerous but they basically boil down to policies of the junta, whether to deny one group citizenship or to wage a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the northeast or hunt down those suspected of undesirable political activity.

    They mostly concentrate in Thailand but a few come to Japan for a few reasons, more than a few because of relatives who are already here or perhaps they just heard there were jobs, which there at least were until the economic meltdown.

  12. No one trusted the numbers coming from NPA.15 years ago,they had total number of 10000 both legal and illegal and everyone laughed it out.The 30K number comes from a former refugee currently working for NHK’s Burmese language radio program.
    But I never used that number anywhere else.

    I know there are some Burmese coming in and out of Japan and Korea migrating for better job opportunity.But never heard of coming in from Taiwan.I’d imagine most of the KMT related “Burmese” are either ethnic Chinese or Shan people and vast majority of Burmese community in Japan are ethnic Burmese.

  13. One way of knowing the numbers of population of Burmese community in Japan is to find the exact number of tax payers being registered in Burmese embassy in Shinagawa.This became a diplotmatic dispute between MoFA and the embassy because
    taxing Japan resident foreigners by foreign government is illegal.Nonetheless the embassy continued doing that to exploit from Burmese resident in Japan.Also it is one way of knowing who is loyal to the government and who is not.Once you stop paying the taxes to the embassy,they’ll stop renewing the passport and you become passport less which forced many to pay the tax.With that number and those who registered to Japanese MoFA as assylum seekers,you’ll probably get the picture of how many Burmese are in this country.

  14. The KMT Burmese are pretty much all ethnic Chinese, but a lot of them actually have trouble getting documentation and become illegal aliens as well. I did a post on them a while back. https://www.mutantfrog.com/2007/11/05/a-bit-more-on-kmt-remnant-in-se-asia/

    I have no idea how many ethnic Burmese there might be in Taiwan, but there is at least one small NGO devoted to helping Burmese refugees in Taiwan, which I was at a rally of in March. Curiously, this is because my friend’s band was playing, and I didn’t even realize it would be a rally before going. The lead singer of the band is himself a Burmese refugee (hence their playing there) who’s lived in Taiwan since he was about 10 or so and currently has no legal status and actually lives by teaching English (which he speaks pretty fluently) at a buxiban or something (Taiwanese equivalent of a Japanese juku). I imagine that few refugees, though, have the means to take such a white collar job.

  15. I may not know much about the Karen, but it looks to me that they come from remote mountainous regions. So why the hell do they relocate them in a huge city instead of somewhere in the countryside?

    They’ll still have a hard time adapting to the culture and language, but at least it would be a little bit easier to adapt to the environment.

    That being said, I do understand that there would be little structures to follow them through the adaptation process if they were in inaka…

  16. Well it’s not yet decided where they’ll be going. Their first six months or so will be intensive training, presumably in Tokyo. One of the people coming said he wants to farm, so I would assume someone along the line told him there’s a chance he can do that.

    Also, I’d bring up two points – 1) It’s not clear that a similar climate/landscape is necessarily the most important condition for success. There’s community receptiveness, job opportunities, access to education, sense of belonging, etc etc.

    2) These people are essentially not from the mountains anymore. They’ve been living in refugee camps sometimes for decades. Even the adults who came over here in the first place have no doubt grown accustomed to a much different life, and the kids know nothing but the camps.

  17. The part about wanting to farm caught my eye; give (loan?) them that abandoned farm land I’ve seen mentioned in other posts and they might do well.

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