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.