Living in fear
KUALA LUMPUR, May 19 — There’s an important element to remember when talking about refugees: they live in a world of fear. Of course, it is not the first time they get to taste this bitter feeling, as they are forced to seek refuge in a new, unfamiliar place. War, poverty, insurgency may have left them traumatised and forced to flee their country. The whole process is shadowed by fear. It will always agonise them as long as they don’t belong.
Currently, Malaysia is host to one of the largest refugee and asylum seeker populations in Asia. More than 90,000 registered refugees exist in the country, 92 per cent of them are Burmese. However, Malaysia is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor the 1967 Protocol and has continued to refuse to recognise them as refugees. There are no policy, laws, or regulations that even admit the existence of refugees. They are unable to work legally, access basic services (e.g. education or health care), let alone feel secure.
“We are repeating the same bad experience,” said Khin, a 35-year-old Burmese refugee who has been living in Kuala Lumpur for five years.
When asked why he chose Malaysia, he said it was the only option. Compared to the other neighboring countries, Malaysia is the farthest, thus a lesser chance of getting tracked down and deported back to their military government. Also, their peers had already settled in Malaysia, so they had connections.
For Yamin, another Burmese refugee I interviewed, security was her only concern. The 32-year-old briefly explained her four-year experience in Malaysia so far, “Life here is very difficult, but still we can survive basic needs.”
Most of the Burmese came to Malaysia by crossing the jungle border, where agents took them on foot. Having to go through the dangerous terrain, many lost their lives-especially children. Those who have money have higher chances of crossing the Malaysia-Thai border safely.
Those who do not could be handed over to human traffickers or sold to fishermen, brothels, or private owners.
Even though many of them made it to Kuala Lumpur in search for a better living condition, Malaysia’s extremely poor environment for refugees creates constant adversity for them to endure.
The UNHCR has contributed by providing protection and advocating for their rights, but still problems perpetuate. The so-called refugee card from UNHCR gives the necessary identification and helps them to be recognised as refugees.
A 50 per cent discount is given to cardholders for healthcare services, but only in government hospitals. Possession of the card, however, does not guarantee them freedom from arrest and detention. Once arrested, they claim that they are subjected to forced bribery, punishments (including whipping), and deportation.
Three of the refugees I interviewed admit that the UNHCR is "helpful but very limited." Despite the 50 per cent discount, many cases have been found that refugees experience substantial obstacles accessing health care in Malaysia. They are also vulnerable to forced labor by not having any work permit. The UNHCR could only do so much about it.
For instance, Yamin’s brother-in-law is a construction worker in KL. Since he works illegally, he is underpaid. His boss uses it as a reason not to pay the fair wage. After a few reports made, Yamin claims the UNHCR could only "give warnings" to the management.The problem is that there is an absence of empathy. It is heavily needed in the core of everyone’s heart who offers help. No matter how big a name an organisation or an individual has, empathy should be the drive, otherwise, no one is affected.
On the other hand, these refugees are making the effort. Coming from an educated background (Khin has obtained two degrees; Yamin studied theology and Amara was enrolled in a college of education for a year), all three of them now work voluntarily at a refugee school in KL as teachers. They teach refugee children, who are unable to attend public schools, up to Primary 5. The school is located on the second floor of a shop, accommodating more than a hundred students in five classrooms with its limited facilities.
However, that doesn’t stop them. “We want [children] to be always inspired to learn,” hoped Amara. The three passionate teachers understand how education could make such a big impact for the generations to come. They “give the seed” here and leave the students to keep on learning. “If they are educated, they can rise up our nation,” Amara said.
No human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms as Elie Wiesel, a Noble Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, once said. “We just want our basic rights.” That is all they demand and they deserve it.
Yamin’s deepest hope is to be with her long-separated family back in Myanmar. Amara wants to continue her studies, attending a university.
She plans to open a school for young children if she ever got back to Myanmar. And Khin, he is eager for knowledge and wants to resettle to a third country for a better empowerment. Then, he wishes to come back to his ethnic group in Myanmar and bring them forward in any way possible.
These are people full of dreams and enthusiasm, waiting to discover something worthwhile. They have hope; and that is exactly what they need.
* Danishwara Nathaniel is a student at the Taylor's College Canadian Pre-University and a member of the Everyone Has Hope Project teaching photography the Burmese Refugee youths living in KL