These are stories written by refugees living in Penang.
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A REFUGEE’S JOURNEY TO A NEW COUNTRY
One humid night in summer, at the beginning of September in 2012, I was suddenly awakened by a commotion, loud voices and cries of “Help! Help!” Immediately I jumped up from my bed and rushed to the window to look outside my wooden two-storey house. I was horrified to see flames from a quickly spreading fire a kilometer away lighting up the darkened sky at the southern side of the village.
The whole night was like hell. Wearing only my pajamas, I stepped outside to see villagers – including the elderly, women carrying babies and toddlers, and children - wailing and running around in panic. The raging fire had devoured their homes: they had lost everything and they had nowhere to go, not even proper water supply or a change of clothes.
Nothing changed throughout the whole night. When the morning broke, I saw the military and the local Rakhines were carrying heavy guns and were well equipped with weapons. They were deliberately shooting Rohingya people, burning and bulldozing the rest of the houses in the villages. All the Rohingya villagers were kept in the paddy field under gunpoint and nobody was allowed to go out of the area. This lasted for the next two weeks. Not even the injured were allowed to leave. In such isolation, people quickly suffered very seriously with basic needs. The people were consuming the only dried rations that they had been able to carry with them. As many as two dozen people died from their injuries where they lay because of the lack of medical access. After about two weeks when the military finally left the area, the villagers then fled in every direction.
I was hiding in the nearby forest for almost three weeks, at a time when no one could be seen by the military or the local Rakhines because they would be killed. I was in fear of my life. I couldn’t see any way I could safely remain in Myanmar so, in search of a safer place, I decided to flee to Bangladesh as it was the only land I could reach at that time. After a few days of travel with some other fellow villagers, I reached there. I had left with only the clothes that I was wearing. Luckily I managed to find an old friend who was my primary school classmate. He provided me shelter in his makeshift lodging which was outside the designated and heavily overcrowded refugee camp. His place faced a constant threat of demolition by the local Bangladesh authorities. I too was facing constant fear of arrest and also of local attack because of the lack of any documentation and protection. As I couldn’t move freely, I was also facing many difficulties with basic necessities.
While I was in Myanmar my country of origin , I was not like other human beings. The Burmese Military government had taken away citizenship rights from the Rohingya in 1981, and so I had no status in the country where I was born and raised up. Both of my parents lived for generations enjoying full legal status as citizens, the same as other persons in Myanmar. They worked for the government and contributed fully to the nation. But then the military enacted the Citizenship law and everything changed for the Rohingya. Now people like me could not travel without seeking permission. I couldn’t get married if and when I wanted to and whom I wish to, without permission from the authorities. I couldn’t pursue my studies because my right to education did not exist. I couldn’t own or conduct any business like other people in Myanmar because as a Rohingya I had no rights and there were severe restrictions placed on my life in every sphere of activity. We were ‘non-citizens’. And in addition we were constantly under the threat of life and confiscation of property.
I was thinking about alternatives for a better future. Many people admonished me not to come to Malaysia because the journey to get there is so dangerous and the life in Malaysia is also unsafe. I was also hearing many stories of horrors, disappearances of untold numbers at sea, abuses and exploitation by the traffickers but I didn’t take it into any consideration as I didn’t have any hope and future in Bangladesh. I only have the option of ”do or die”. I asked help from my relatives to lend me some money to arrange an agent so that I can reach another new place with the hope of a better future and so I could support the wellbeing of my family. The traffickers in Bangladesh mostly target the Rohingya people who have fled the communal violence and the unbearable situation in Myanmar, because we have little choices. The traffickers become very rich.
During springtime when the waters are calmer before the monsoon rain, is the prime smuggling season. My friend had managed to find an agent for me from the refugee camp in Bangladesh. A few days later, one dark midnight, the smugglers took me to a small fishing village with some 70 other people. We boarded a small fishing boat, and after about two hours of journey, we approached a larger vessel and we all were transferred into it. Most of the people in the vessel were from Myanmar with some from Bangladesh.
On the vessel, I saw lots of other people including pregnant women and small children. For nearly two weeks, we remained at sea as the vessel was collecting more passengers. The vessel was old, leaky and was also not big enough for so many people. Finally when the traffickers recruited enough people, about a thousand, the journey proceeded to Thailand
The hygiene conditions on the boat were very scary. There was only one toilet and people had to lineup to attend it. There were ten traffickers - five from Myanmar and another five from Thailand - on the boat. All were armed with guns and each one had a sword as well. Nobody was allowed to do any movement, only the traffickers could. The traffickers would beat anyone trying to walk anywhere on the boat. People couldn’t sit and sleep well for the whole journey. Food was very insufficient. In a day only a plate of rice in a plastic with a small water bottle were provided to a person. Due to the lack of movement and not enough food, day by day people were getting weaker physically and mentally. There were not any medical aids and when someone got sick he couldn’t get any medicine. As a result, five passengers passed away on the journey and the dead bodies were just thrown into the sea.
Fortunately, after ten days I arrived in a place at night in Thailand but I didn’t know the exact location. Upon arrival in Thailand, the traffickers divided people into groups. Each group contained fifty people. Different groups were taken to different places in the jungle, by walking. After about three hours of walking through the jungle, my group arrived in an open area inside the jungle. There were some makeshift coverings and under them were several people lying around, including babies and also some other of the traffickers’ people. Some were really in critical condition suffering beriberi and other diseases. The situation in the jungle was also the same as the situation on the boat in terms of food and hygiene and treatment. The worst thing in the traffickers’ camps was that the traffickers were beating the victims by using a hammer to those who couldn’t settle the ransoms set for their release. The traffickers had made people phone parents or relatives in Malaysia or any other place, to demand the money for release. Not everyone can pay it.
I was under the arrest of traffickers for eight days until my relatives from Malaysia paid the ransom. I witnessed myself on every day basis that at least three to four people died in the traffickers camps because of their mistreatment. When someone passed away, the dead body was taken away by the traffickers.
Finally, when my relatives paid the ransom for me to the counterpart agent in Malaysia then the traffickers’ agent brought me to the Malaysian border sometimes by walking and most of the time by riding car. I crossed the border into the Malaysian side at night by climbing a ladder and jumped into Malaysia with some thirty other people.
Upon my arrival in Malaysia, the agent handed me over to my relative. Then I started to look for a job on a daily basis. Most of the time I was rejected because I have no status here either. After one and half months, I did get job at a carwash. Many times I had to run away when I heard the authorities were going to conduct a raid. I was always in fear of arrest, extortion and detention by the authorities – a daily occurrence in the refugee community here. We have no protection because we have no status. When people talked about detention in Malaysia, I was crying and couldn’t sleep at night because of the fears of getting detained any time. I was wondering what sort of hope or future was in front of me in Malaysia, when my status was the same as it had been In Myanmar.
REFUGEE LIVES IN MALAYSIA
One day in October 2008 I bumped into someone at the Selayang wholesale market who happened to be a Rohingya refugee. I greeted him, and we introduced each other. Mohamed Hasan was tanned and he looked sad. I asked him about his life as a refugee in Malaysia.
“I go around in the neighborhood to collect and sell recycleable items for a living,” he replied.
I asked him if I could follow him to his house. He agreed; so I waited for him to finish his work. There, I found his family of eight members living in a rundown house with one little room and a small hall. Upon seeing the condition of his home, I asked him why he did not rent a more spacious house for the family. He told me that he could not afford it and that they live from hand to mouth.
Mohamed Hasan has been in Malaysia since 1985, a few years after the first major crackdown on the Rohingya community by the Burmese military. He experienced a lot of difficulty because he does not have any legal documents. Refugees in Malaysia have no rights; the Malaysian government does not recognise they have any special status. Often he had to hide for fear of being arrested by the local authorities. He also had to endure hunger as he could not earn sufficient income, because he has few opportunities and no protection at work because he has no right to work.
It was in 2002 that he finally was able to obtain a document (a refugee card) issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But he continued to face problems because the UNHCR Card still does not give him any rights and cannot fully protect him from being arrested by the local authorities In addition, local thugs often robbed him of his money.
In 2005, Mohamed Hasan’s family from Arakan, Myanmar arrived to join him. The family struggled to make ends meet because of the irregular and meagre income that he earned. To make matters worse, Mohamed Hasan alleged the authorities often stopped him and extorted money from him. In the past two years, he has been arrested six times. Each time he was detained, the family was forced to beg for their daily needs. Many refugees suffer the same fate as Mohamed Hasan.
The Rohingya refugees first started trickling into Malaysia in the early 1980s. There are no refugee camps in Malaysia; so the refugees live in towns and cities across Malaysia in small low-cost flats or crammed in delapidated houses next to local homes. It is common for a few families or a dozen individuals to share a living space to save costs and for security reasons.
In the eyes of Malaysian law, the refugees are not different from undocumented (‘illegal’) migrants. The refugees are often at risk of arrest and detention if they are stopped by the authorities. The absence of legal and administrative frameworks to safeguard refugees leaves them exposed to the abuse of their basic rights such as local employers taking advantage of refugees’ vulnerabilites.
The refugees are trying to survive working in informal sectors with extremely low pay or no wages at all. But the refugees are unable to report their employers to the authorities for abuses at the workplace due to their lack of legal status.
The refugees have access to healthcare facilities in Malaysia - but they have to pay ‘foreigners’ fees’ which are very high. The prohibitive cost of treatment and their irregular income make it unaffordable to them. In some cases, refugees died from preventable and curable diseases because they could not pay for the treatment. In some cases, it has been known for hospital authorities to hold new-born babies until the refugee family can pay the bill.
Malaysian law does not allow refugee children to go to national schools. This means the only opportunity is if local voluntary groups set up schools. There are some, but they provide places for less than half the children at primary, and less than a fifth for secondary or pre-school. The majority of children get no education at all.
The refugees are often torn when the police stop and ask them whether or not they are working. If they say “yes”, the police would ask them why they are working with a UNHCR card – something not allowed under Malaysian law. If they say “no”, the refugees may be asked if they resort to theft or robbery to feed themselves; otherwise how else do they survive? Either way, it is all too common that the refugee has to pay some money to avoid further harassment or arrest. Thousands of refugees do end up in detention centres, meaning their families have no income at all, and many refugee children and women have little choice but to resort to begging to survive especially when the sole breadwinner of the family has been arrested.
The immigration officers often carry out raids at the workplace of housing projects and in villages where the refugees with their families live. There are times when refugee women and their children, including infants, are arrested and put into detention camps. The conditions in these immigration detention centres are horrible. There is not enough food or water; there is over crowding; there is lack of sanitation; there is little for detainees to do; and communication to the outside world may only happen if you pay for it.
In some immigration detention centres, the authorities allow the detainees to take a shower with only five small bowls of water - which is hardly enough to wet the body once. If a detainee falls sick and asks for medicine, the authorities shout at the detainee saying the budget for medicine is not for foreigners. Some camp authorities forced the women to do sit-up for hundreds of times as a punishment in detention centre if their babies cry.
In a nutshell, the refugees in Malaysia find themselves trapped in a vicious circle of living in a legal grey area and being arrested. They have three options; repatriation, local integration and resettlement.
For Rohingya refugees, repatriation is not a possible option, and the chances of resettlement to a third country is slim. Local integration is the only option for Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, and Malaysians can play a big role to make it possible.
With no quick solution in sight, Rohingya refugees have to live in Malaysia for an uncertain period of time. So why not allow the refugees to work here legally so they can contribute to society ? It would solve so many issues to everyone’s immediate benefit.