First of 90 Burmese refugees arrive in Japan

Irrawaddy news, 28th Sept 2010

TOKYO —The first of 90 refugees from military-run Burma arrived in Japan on Tuesday as part of a three-year UN resettlement program, bucking Tokyo’s traditional reluctance to take asylum seekers.

Eighteen ethnic Karen — three married couples and their 12 children aged one to 15 — will be given apartments in the Japanese capital and take a six-month orientation program, with lessons on language and culture and vocational training and support in finding a job.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees hopes "Japan will set an example for other Asian countries to follow," its spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva.

The refugees are among almost 100,000 Karen staying in camps in Thailand after fleeing military repression and fighting between Karen guerrillas and the Burmese government troops over the past three decades.

Japan’s Cabinet in 2008 announced a plan to accept 90 Burmese refugees. Officials have indicated a possibility to consider widening the scope of the program if the first group resettles smoothly.

"We are determined to provide ample support for the Burmese refugees who come to live in Japan," Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara told reporters Tuesday. "There would be a trial and failure process, but we will always try to listen to them and help."

Although Japan in UNHCR’s second biggest donor after the United States, it has long been reluctant to take in refugees.

In 2009, Japan accepted just 30 refugees, including 18 Burmese nationals, while granting special permit to 501 others to stay for humanitarian considerations, according to Justice Ministry data. But even that figure was much more than previous years, amid signs it is opening up more to immigrants amid concerns over its own aging population and shrinking work force.

More than 11,000 "boat people" from Vietnam and neighboring countries arrived in Japan between the late 1970s and 2005, but most of them went on to settle in the US and other countries.

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