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28 September - Flashing cameras and well-wishers' applause greeted 18 refugees when they touched down today in Tokyo, where they will begin new lives as part of Asia's first-ever resettlement programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported.

“I am very happy to have arrived in Japan,” said one of the women refugees, looking a bit overwhelmed by the attention of the television crews capturing her arrival, before boarding a bus to a reception centre where the group will spend a week acclimatizing to the country's capital.

The refugees – three married couples and their 12 children, ranging in age between one and 15 – are farmers of the Karen ethnicity who have been living in Mae La camp in northern Thailand since fleeing Myanmar. Nearly all of the children in the group were born as refugees in Thailand.

They arrived in Japan after a six-hour flight as part of a pilot programme that will see Japan accept 90 Myanmar refugees over three years, making it the first country in Asia to resettle refugees.

Two other families were also set to join Nay Min and the others in coming to Tokyo today, but had to stay in Bangkok at the last minute because they caught the flu. They are expected to travel as soon as they get well.

The scheme has attracted huge media interest in Japan. Both on departure from Bangkok and on arrival at Narita Airport, the refugees were outnumbered by Japanese journalists.

“This marks a new chapter in Japan's strengthening of its refugee and asylum policies,” said Johan Cels, UNHCR's Representative in the country.

Japan, the agency's second-largest donor, not only provides “generous financial support for refugees in many parts of the world, but now also provides a future for refugees in the country,” he added, voicing hope that other Asian nations will follow Japan's example.

Nay Min, the oldest male refugee in the group at 45, said he has always been a farmer because that is what the Karen people traditionally do. “But after I arrive in Japan, if they will find me any type of job, I will do it if they can train me,” he said before departing Bangkok.

He said there were a few sleepless nights for his family due to excitement and happiness at the chance for a fresh start in a new country.

“For 18 years we were struggling,” he said. “We got rations from the camp and we had to follow the rules of the camp.”

Approximately 20,000 Myanmar refugees have already left Mae La to begin new lives, forming part of the more than 55,000 refugees who have been resettled from the nine camps in Thailand since a large-scale programme started in 2005. Most have departed for the United States, Australia and Canada.

While in the camp, the refugees selected to be resettled in Japan took lessons in Japanese culture and language. In Tokyo, they will be given apartments, more language classes, help in adapting to the culture, vocational training and job support.

Before they left Mae La, many of the children had hoped to become doctors and teachers, and Nay Min said his biggest hope for his new life in Japan was a good education for his three children.

For himself, he said that respect for his family's human rights was paramount. “I want to visit countries all over the world once I get a passport from Japan,” he said, as he stepped on his first of hopefully many more flights.