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Time to change Tokyo's stance on re

Asahi Evening News  
November 18, 1997
Shogo Watanabe 
Time to change Tokyo's stance on refugees 

Special to Asahi Shimbun

Fearing political persecution, a number of Burmese (Myanmarese) have fled to
Japan since the 1988 coup d'etat staged by the country's present military

While campaigning for the democratization of their country in cooperation
with their compatriots elsewhere abroad, they are seeking protection by the
Japanese government as refugees. But none of them has been recognized as a

"With no legal status guaranteed, I go through everyday life feeling like an
exile," said an applicant for refugee status. I cannot forget his depressed
look as he said this.

The Burmese are not the only ones who suffer from this
"close-the-door-against-refugees" policy. From 1982, when the refugee system
was established, until last year, Japan accepted 210 political refugees,
most of whom were Indo-Chinese refugees.

During the past three years, this country has accepted only one refugee
annually (not counting one who was recognized as a refugee in 1995 after a
dispute about his status).
Based on the unique view that the Japanese are a homogeneous nation the
government's refugee policy appears to be geared toward "national border
control." This approach, however, is contrary to international practice.
Compared with European countries the number of refugees accepted by Japan is
abnormally low. In 1994, Ger many took in refugees by the tens of thousands,
while France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Britain accepted
them by the thousands.

In addition to accepting dozens of refugees, Norway and Finland let in
hundreds more under a special system which gives displaced people the right
to stay in these countries temporarily for humanitarian reasons.
In a speech in Tokyo in July, Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, noted that Japan accepted only one refugee last
year and urged the Japanese government to open its doors wider.

'This is a figure for which we have no excuse to make to the world," she said.

Not heeding the call, the government is becoming even more exclusionist
against refugees.

Applications for refugee status that have been filed for Burmese by a group
of lawyers which includes myself have been turned down because of a legal
provision that such applications must be filed within 60 days from the date
of entry (or from when applicants qualify for refugee status after entry).

Compared with other countries, it is unusual to turn down applications on
grounds of a provision limiting the period of application alone.

Even so, no applicant was held in custody until this August.

Then a Burmese person I will call "M," whose appeal for a review of the
government's original decision to reject his application for refugee status
had been turned down, was taken into custody by the immigration authorities.
The justice minister also rejected his request for a stay permit.

Given the fact that M was tortured while he was under arrest or in detention
back in Burma, he was amply qualified for refugee status.

He became even more qualified when the military government, holding Burmese
residents in Japan responsible for a bomb blast that took place in Rangoon
(Yangon) in April, published M's name and photograph and claimed he was one
of the parties involved.

After being taken into custody, M filed a second application for refugee
status. It was accepted at the end of Au gust. But despite supporting
lawyers' efforts to have him paroled, M was still in custody as of Nov. 10.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has
recommended that governments should, in principle, not hold in custody
applicants for a refugee status. Yet, the Japanese government, even after
ratifying the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, refuses to
follow the UNHCR recommendation.

I find this approach to the refugee issue intolerable.

In a 1997 report to the United Nations, the government said that since the
refugee convention and the Protocol on the Status of Refugees came into
effect for Japan in 1982, this country has been enforcing their provisions
faithfully and strictly.

If this is true, the government should make positive efforts to open the
doors more wide for refugees.

It is a certainty that when Burma becomes a democracy in the future people
like M will play a prominent role. It is unthinkable that a country which
does not offer protection to them now will be able to forge genuinely
friendly relations with the future Burmese government. Besides working for
Burmese residents in Japan as a lawyer, I also participate in grassroots
activities to help them

This is because I believe grassroots efforts of this sort are essential to
help Burma democratize itself and induce the Japanese government to change
its refugee policy.

The author is a lawyer and secretary general of the People's Forum on Burma.