Images from UNHCR
urmese refugee Anthony (not his real name) has been caught by the police at least 10 times since 2007, when he arrived as an illegal immigrant in Malaysia. “I ran whenever the police or the RELA members (paramilitary civil volunteer corps) were in sight,” said Anthony, shuddering at the memory of his experience. Still, it was hard for him to avoid the police when they raided his workplace. Sometimes, he “bumped” into them at the police roadblocks he had to pass through on his way to work.
“We are like the animals that can be hunted day and night by the hunter. There is no sense of security at all for us who are living in this country,” said the 20-something.
Anthony considered himself lucky as he managed to escape prison each time; unlike his fellow countrymen who were locked up for a long periods of time and beaten in the overcrowded detention centres. Under the Malaysian law, those staying in the country illegally are subject to a mandatory six lashes of the cane, fines and up to five years in jail.
“Once, the police asked me to pay them RM1,000 so that I will not be locked up. I told them I did not have such an amount of money, then they just took whatever I had in my pocket,” said Anthony. He related that members in his Mara community would pool the money together to pay the bribe which could cos as much as RM500 per head. Those who are released will then work to repay the money, which will usually be used to bail out another member from the community who is unfortunate enough to be caught by the police.
“Many times, some of us were sent back to Myanmar. Fortunately, we were only sent back to the Thailand border. We will definitely be killed if they had sent us back to the hands of the Myanmar military regime,” said Anthony. His ordeal only ended in 2009 when he was finally granted the UNHCR refugee status.
It is estimated that there are 1,200 Myanmar people of the Mara tribe living in Malaysia. Only 800 of the Mara people in Malaysia have managed to attain the UNHCR refugee identity cards so far.
Originally from the Chin state in western Myanmar, the Christian Mara people fled Myanmar to escape religious prosecution from the military government. Anthony said many Chin people crossed the border to Thailand and Malaysia even though India was closer to their border. According to him, the Indian-Myanmar border is more heavily guarded.
“I had to escape, I wanted to seek a better opportunity for myself,” he said.
Currently working at a wiring workshop, Anthony has started a new life in Malaysia. He is actively involved in the community work and he met his wife, another Mara refugee, here. The couple had just been blessed with a baby boy recently. He may seem like a Burmese refugee who had done good but his story belies untold miseries that the refugee communities are mired in. Anthony speaks of the difficult living conditions and the exploitation the community endured from the local people. “Our sisters are abused by the local people and some are raped too. We do not have the courage to come out in public,” he said.
Due to the high rental charges and the meagre wages the refugees earn, as many as 18 people have to squeeze into a tiny apartment. “Coming from the most remote area of Myanmar, we do not have the skills to get a job and we do not know the locals’ languages,” said Anthony.
Their problem is further compounded when a member of the community falls ill. “We could not afford medical treatment. Other than praying together and comforting the sick and injured, we can do nothing,” said Anthony.
UNHCR is assisting the community in setting up classes for the refugee children, while the community receives assistance from the church and other NGOs from time to time.
“As Christians, we would like to bury our dead in Christian cemeteries. It deeply saddens us when we do not have RM6,000 to buy a plot of land when a member of our community dies,” said Anthony.
Asked on the recent Myanmar-Malaysia refugee swap plan which will send 1,000 Myanmar migrants home, Anthony said it is a worry that could cause more uncertainties in the community. “The UNHCR and the Malaysian government has assured us that those who have refugees identity cards will not be deported back. But of course we are still worried for our brothers and sisters who do not have the refugee cards,” said Anthony.
“You may say that why these people choose to be a refugee but we did not choose to be refugees. No one wants to live on undocumented status, we were refugees from the political circumstances we could not escape from,” he added. He remains hopeful to resettle in a different country someday.
Editor’s Note: On top of this Malaysian-Burmese swap deal, it appears that the governments of Malaysia and Australia have also revived their interest in pursuing the swap deal known as the ‘Malaysian Solution’. Prime Minister Najib Razak even wrote an article claiming that this deal would put an end to human trafficking and abuse of boatpeople heading to Australia.
As we have seen from this article, the human rights of refugees in Malaysia are by no means guaranteed. In this context, what is the diplomatic value in gambling with the lives of refugees and asylum seekers?