Japan Needs Refugee Settlement Program ASAP

Special Report by Kato Hiroshi

Shock waves rocked Japan recently when four North Korean defectors sailed into Funaura port in Aomori Prefecture (northeastern Japan) in a seven-meter wooden boat whose top speed was just 10 knots . The arrival of the four family members on Japanese shores from Chongjin, 850 km away, after ten days at sea, was nothing short of miraculous. 

Fears of an Influx

Until now, discussions about North Korean human rights issues in Japan have always centered on the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. Now, however, the issue of North Korean refugees has seized the spotlight.

This incident has awakened fears that there may be waves of North Koreans fleeing their country. Before this, the usual route for defectors was by land through China and on through a third country such as Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, or Thailand, to their eventual destination of South Korea, Japan, or the United States. But these defectors entered Japan directly by sea. So unexpected was this, that the media featured it extensively, turning it into a major event.

No System in Place

The local police and government are seldom privy to national policy, so when special cases arise, they typically must wait for instructions from Tokyo. A local newspaper reporter described his frustration as reporters from faraway Tokyo scooped the story, simply because the local Aomori prefectural police had no information to give.

The idea of a flood of North Korean refugees by sea first surfaced four to five years ago. At that time, officials from each ministry and the Prime Minister’s office met to discuss the issue. But the way the present case was handled demonstrates that no formal plan was ever drawn up.

Plans Never Discussed with Tokyo

Refugees arriving by sea fall primarily under the jurisdiction of the Japan Coast Guard. Then, when they set foot on land, they become the responsibility of the Immigration authorities, and following that, the police.

This fragmented system clearly illustrates the lack of readiness of the Coast Guard and the nation as a whole to receive refugees. Dealing with North Korean defectors is the responsibility of the local immigration bureau. Local governments act only at the behest of Tokyo. Thus, there has never been any real discussion with the central government regarding the treatment of defectors from the North.

In the Aomori case, the four expressed their desire to go to South Korea as soon as they set foot on Japanese soil. By an interesting coincidence, a foreign ministers’ conference was being held in South Korea at the time of their arrival; the South Korean foreign minister quickly asserted his country’s intention to accept the defectors, after which the case was handled promptly.

What if They Had Wanted to Settle in Japan?

The question arises: what if the defectors had stated a desire to settle in Japan?

The Japanese government is obliged to accept defectors into the country, and to treat them in a humanitarian way. Once they are granted refugee status, a facility to hold them would become necessary. In addition, refugees wishing to settle in Japan need the basic skills required to function in Japanese society, such as Japanese-language education, and other training that would enable them to make a living.

There is, however, no facility to house refugees from the North. Apart from North Korean agents or criminals, the police at the point of landing do not have the ability to hold them.

In such cases, will the immigration authorities house defectors? At present, the immigration bureau detains those who have violated immigration law and are awaiting deportation. The facilities in use are not intended as a stepping-stone to integration into Japanese society.

What about the prefectural and municipal governments? These governments also have no provisions for dealing with defectors.

Inadequate Laws

Ultimately, in addition to the lack of sufficient laws, defectors face having to deal with the Coast Guard, the police, the immigration bureau, as well as local governments.

The four defectors in this case stated that their intention was never to land in Japan.

According to Kazuhito Araki of the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Kidnapped to North Korea (COMJAN), there have been more than 60 unmanned boats, or boats containing human corpses, from North Korea landing on the west coast of Japan (in Shimane, Tottori, Kyoto, Ishikawa, Fukui, Niigata, Akita, Aomori, and Hokkaido prefectures).

Even though the occupants of these boats managed to evade the North Korean Coast Guard, unfortunately they were not successful in landing in Japan as they had intended.

Possibility of Transportation “Business”

Although the sea route is fraught with dangers and hardships not found on the land route, there is a strong possibility that people will find innovative ways to overcome these dangers. With the erosion of North Korea’s ability to govern itself and the resulting confusion, the possibility of the North Korean maritime security authorities conducting a human-transportation business cannot be ruled out. If this were to happen, the intake of North Korean refugees, as well as the mechanisms to handle them, would face a drastic need for expansion.

According to various sources, the number of those returning to Japan from North Korea to date is over 130. However, that figure was as of mid-2006. At present, there are close to 200 defectors living in hiding in Japan, and that number will only increase. (Note: many defectors still have relatives in North Korea and wish to remain anonymous to protect family members.)

A Very Cool Reception

The Japanese government currently deals with North Korean defectors from a humanitarian standpoint, but does not treat them as refugees. It is interested mainly in ethnic Koreans and their Japanese wives who moved to North Korea following the North’s “Paradise on Earth” program initiated in 1959 to “build up the homeland through the right to self-determination.”

There is not even a mechanism in place, however, to deal with these refugees. Japan’s North Korean Human Rights Law, enacted by the Diet last year, contains only a statement that “efforts should be made to help these defectors.” A cool reception indeed.

Cooperation Needed Between NGOs and Government

The Japanese government assists defectors up until they arrive in Japan. After that, finding accommodation and employment, and providing Japanese-language education is left entirely to NGOs. The burden economically and in terms of manpower is immense, and NGOs are reaching the breaking point.

Regardless of whether defectors arrive by land, air, or sea, the Japanese government needs to provide those wishing to settle in Japan with the tools needed to become fully-functioning members of society. These include Japanese-language education, employment training, and financial assistance toward finding employment.

The Japanese government does not, however, have to be solely responsible for the smooth integration of defectors into Japanese society. A framework for cooperation with NGOs experienced in working with North Korean refugees needs to be established.

For those with the aim of settling in Japan and eventually becoming independent, more needs to be done than just extolling the virtues of Japanese society. Defectors also need to be taught about the challenges and issues they will face living in Japan, as well as details of Japanese customs and cultural differences. If, after having these facts explained to them, they decide settling in Japan would involve too many difficulties, they have the option of settling in South Korea, where the government is much better prepared to receive them.

Even in South Korea, though, the government relies heavily on NGOs. We ask that our governments recognize the crucial role that NGOs play, and on whose work they rely.

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