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The first batch of Burmese refugees picked for resettlement will leave their homes in a populous camp close to Thailand’s border with Burma next week to begin a new life in Japan.
The 27 refugees from Burma’s eastern Karen state make up five families selected to be resettled in Japan, after Tokyo announced last year that it would accept around 30 Burmese refugees each year until 2012.
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 some of the thousands that have fled conflict and abuse in Burma’s volatile ethnic regions.
The five families have been given basic training in Japanese language, culture and cuisine. Six families had originally been selected but one pulled out, said the director of Mae La camp, Saw Htun Htun.
The 47,000 refugees in Mae La, Thailand’s most populous refugee camp, make up a significant proportion of the 148,000 refugees that the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) estimates to live along the porous border. More than 60 percent of these are Karen, it says.
Around 17,000 of these refugees 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.
Human Rights Watch last year welcomed the move by Japan, but urged the government to accept more than the 90 that will be resettled over the next three years. The New York-based group also warned in October last year that Rohingya refugees from Burma that sought asylum in Japan were not being adequately protected, and were often deported.
Aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has warned that the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that hails from western Burma’s Arakan state, are among the world’s most threatened ethnic minorities.
The Burmese government claims they do not originate in Burma, and thus denies them any legal status in the country. Some 400,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in recent decades, although Dhaka has also shown a reluctance to accommodate them.
Japan has sent mixed messages regarding Burma since the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power in September last year, pledged to press the military government on its human rights abuses. It has said twice that continuing aid to Burma would be dependent on the release of opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, although this appears not to have been followed through.