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Monday, 25 August 2014

Editorial: Earthquake disaster refugees falling through cracks of gov’t negligence

Aug. 26, 2014 (Tue.)

This matter goes right to the root of disaster recovery support. The Reconstruction Agency is now churning through data to come up with a new figure for the number of people made refugees by 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns after finding that central and local government estimates were well off the mark.

What’s especially surprising about the massive miscount is the sloppy handling of relevant data, which is the very basis for disaster recovery policy. We call on the government to consider a uniform management policy for all data on its support for long-term evacuees, and thereby prevent those who fled the Fukushima nuclear disaster of their own accord from being cut out of the assistance loop.

One case of a poorly managed refugee estimate happened in Saitama Prefecture. The prefectural government only counted people using prefectural and municipal temporary housing as disaster refugees, and only did regular recounts in a few cities and towns. That the true number was quite a bit more was discovered when a local citizens’ group pointed out that the prefecture’s disaster refugee count seemed too low.

The Saitama Prefectural Government stated that there were 2,640 evacuees from the 2011 disasters living within its jurisdiction as of June this year. Simply toting up all the refugees living in municipalities in the prefecture, however, apparently showed there were possibly more than 5,000 evacuees within Saitama Prefecture’s borders.

Why the discrepancy? In May 2011, about two months after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan’s northeast, the Cabinet Office asked prefectural governments to total up the number of disaster refugees in their jurisdictions based on the type of place they were staying in. Actually confirming these numbers proved difficult in practice, however, and in July 2012 Saitama Prefecture told the central government that it would stop counting evacuees receiving direct housing assistance from the Fukushima Prefectural Government and other sources.

For its part, the central government failed to set comprehensive standards for counting evacuees, suggesting that the lowball number of refugees is the result of a mutual failure to communicate.
It’s quite possible that Saitama Prefecture is not the only government body miscounting its refugee population. Reconstruction Agency figures for July this year put the number of refugees at 247,233 nationwide. However, the agency has asked all the prefectures for a recount that includes “voluntary” nuclear disaster evacuees. Standing here in the summer of 2014, you could say this is too little, too late, but then it also goes without saying that double-checking evacuee figures is a necessary step.

There are in fact two running counts of nuclear disaster refugees; one by the Reconstruction Agency, and one based on the number of evacuees from 13 municipalities in eastern Fukushima Prefecture. The latter is the basis for assistance under the special law on nuclear disaster refugees, and most of these evacuees have filed assistance claims with the local governments where they now live. What this figure does not include, however, are people who left their homes in Fukushima Prefecture on their own recognizance, for whom there is no support system. As such, these evacuees are not even informed of available support measures. Efforts must be made to make sure these people are not overlooked.

Right after the March 2011 disasters, the government briefly considered allowing refugees to list a “second address” on their resident certificates, but the idea was dropped due to legal difficulties. In April 2011, the government set up a “national evacuee information system” to allow refugees to report their own status. The information on the system, however, soon proved to be out of kilter with reality, and it is no longer used for nationwide evacuee number estimates.

The true number of people who remain disaster refugees more than three years after that terrible March day is unknown, lost in the cracks of government negligence. To ensure that recovery assistance is delivered smoothly to those who need it, the government has a responsibility to set standards and expand the activities of existing support systems to their maximum potential. It must come up with good ideas, and fast.

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