Japan calls for Burma refugee support

Nov 24, 2009 (DVB), The Japanese prime minister has called on the United Nations refugee agency to assist in the resettlement to Japan of Burmese refugees currently in camps along the Thai-Burma border.

Some 130,000 Burmese nationals, the majority of whom have fled fighting in the country's eastern Karen state, currently live in nine major camps on the Thai side of the border.

Japan has said it requires assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle 30 Burmese refugees each year over the next three years, starting from fiscal year 2010.

Around 17,000 Burmese refugees living in camps in Thailand are resettled each year to third countries, mainly the United States. Between 5,000 and 8,000 new refugees arrive in the camps each year.

Japan, which has been criticized in the past by rights groups for its apparent pandering to the military regime in Burma, has become the first Asian country to accept Burmese refugees.

In a letter sent to the Japanese government last month, however, eight human rights groups criticized Tokyo for failing to adequately protect Burmese Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in the country.

Kanae Doi, the Tokyo director at Human Rights Watch, one of the signatories to the letter, said today that the latest announcement was a "welcome move" by the government, but urged it to do more.

"The resettlement is restricted to only 30 refugees every year, and that number is too small, so we want Japan, in cooperation with UNHCR, to enlarge the project," she said.

"We also want Japan to really press the Burmese government to stop the persecution of all Burmese, including the Rohingya group."

She added that it was "a gesture" by the new Democratic Party of Japan, which needed to "take more steps" to protect Burmese refugees.

Thailand recently voiced concern about a possible wave of refugees crossing its border in the run-up to elections in Burma next year.

Aid groups working on the border have also warned about the potential for outbreaks in conflict as the Burmese government attempts to transform armed ethnic groups into border guard forces prior to elections.

It was this that resulted in heavy fighting earlier this year between Burmese troops and an ethnic Kokang group in Burma's northeastern Shan state. Around 37,000 refugees fled across the border to China.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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