The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Unsafe Harbor

Malaysia provides no protection for its refugee population

I’ve always thought that the lives of Burmese refugees were much the same from place to place. They’re generally unwanted, have few opportunities to better their lives and in many cases suffer unconscionable abuse.

An Irrawaddy correspondent witnesses the hardships facing migrant in Malaysia
Witnessing the appalling conditions endured by Burmese refugees in Malaysia, however, has brought their misery and lack of hope into greater focus.

During a visit to the Ampang suburb of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, a Rohingya community leader casually pointed to a group of young Burmese children playing near the small hut that served as their home.

“Look,” he said, pointing in their direction. “None of these children can read or write.”

None of the schools in Malaysia accepts refugee children from Burma, so these children are unlikely ever to learn while they remain in the country.

My visit to Ampang revealed the hidden desperation of Rohingya refugees who fled oppression in Burma only to find more of the same in their country of refuge. The streets teem with refugees looking for any opportunity to support their families.

At first glance, they might seem little more than beggars, gardeners, odd-jobbers or even criminals. They’re not always immediately recognizable as Burmese.

As the community leader and I walked through Ampang, we saw a father petitioning door-to-door for work as a gardener. His young children trailed behind him—one of them carrying a sharp pair of rusting shears.

Five-year old Rohingya refugee Mohd Ali and family demand asylum during a "sit-in" at the UNHCR compound in Kuala Lumpur [Photo: AFP]

The old man asked for any kind of work—cutting grass, weeding, cleaning up—in return for money or a meal for his family. He was only one of many. Others scrabbled for scrap iron or plastic from rubbish bins. Still others fished in open drains for their dinner.

In Ampang, I also met a 14-year-old Rohingya girl named San San Yu. She was born in Arakan State in western Burma but left with her family a few years later for Malaysia to escape the crushing poverty and relentless oppression that have come to define life there for the local Rohingya population.

San San Yu now lives with her family—including parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—in a small cement building in Ampang. About 20 people share the cramped quarters.

“I always used to think about going to school and studying, but I know that my parents cannot afford to send me,” San San Yu said softly when asked about her dreams for the future. “Now, I just worry about the daily survival of my family.”

Watching young Malaysian girls her own age walking on the streets or catching buses in their school uniforms fills San San Yu with envy and regret.

More than 20,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma live in Malaysia. Most have registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but they continue to be denied access to education and live in fear of deportation.

Malaysia, like Thailand, is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, but it has signed two other important international agreements: the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

But conventions alone are not the solution. Governments can choose to ignore them. Thailand did not sign the 1951 refugee convention, but it allows refugees from Burma to live in temporary camps along the border and provides legal registration for migrants. It also grants educational opportunities for refugees and migrants.

In contrast, Malaysia provides no protection for its refugee population, only the constant threat of arrest, abuse and deportation. Many refugees who have been deported must bribe their way back into the country, usually hiding in the trunk of a car.

An older Rohingya man recognized by the UNHCR as a refugee met me in a teashop in downtown Kuala Lumpur. During our visit, he pulled photos from a book that depicted him naked from behind and clearly showed the thick welt from the caning he received while in detention.

Recognition of refugee status by an international organization does not protect against abuse. only the most extreme circumstances would have compelled this dignified man to reveal those humiliating photos to a young Burmese woman such as myself.

Before dawn on the morning of my departure, as I waited for the bus to the airport, I received a text message informing me that two friends who had introduced me to Burmese refugees during my visit had been arrested in raids conducted just hours before, along with 150 others.

One of the detained men had been punched in the face for telling the Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia, or RELA, officers (a vigilante group used by the Malaysian immigration department) attempting to arrest him that he was a refugee and had the right to legal protection.

Maybe in other places that would be true, but not in Malaysia.

After I arrived at the airport, one of the detained refugees called me from the RELA temporary detention center. He was hiding in a bathroom because detainees were not allowed to make phone calls.

He told me that he was not concerned for himself. As an activist, he has grown accustomed to being arrested and deported. He speaks Bahasa Malaysia and a little Thai and can handle himself, he told me over the phone. But he was worried about the others, some of them pregnant women and children. What will happen to them? he asked.

It is sad enough that, as Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said, Burmese people live in fear in their own country. But to live in fear in a country that they have come to for shelter from oppression is sadder still.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |