Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Burma: Rohingya Stranded in Malaysia

By Sean Garcia
Refugees International

In late November, just before Thanksgiving, we visited a group of 30 Rohingya men in Penang, Malaysia. We were anxious to visit areas outside of Kuala Lumpur, where civil society is slowly improving services for Burmese refugees. We wanted to see whether refugees nationwide were receiving more attention.

Most of the men in the group we met have been living in Malaysia for over a decade. We were the first visitors that they had ever received from the international community. The group explained to us that they moved to Penang because there is more employment there than in other parts of Malaysia. However, unlike in Kuala Lumpur, where there are limited but growing services for Rohingya refugees, there are no schools or mobile health clinics that will attend to their needs. When asked if there are any civil society organizations in Penang that could help them, no one in the room could identify a single source of help.

Like most Burmese refugees in Malaysia, the greatest concern for everyone in the group was being arrested and deported to the Thai-Malaysia border. The group recounted the story of a recent immigration raid in the community that we visited, which took place three days earlier. In this raid, between 40 to 50 agents from “Rela”, a volunteer corps charged with arresting illegal migrants, combed through their neighborhood from 5pm to 6pm. They asked anyone they found on the street for identification, and six refugees ended up being detained. These raids are a regular part of life for Burmese refugees. The group said that raids happen a few times a year, with a previous one having taken place just six or seven weeks earlier.

Only a few people in the room had papers from the UN Refugee Agency, and the Rohingya we spoke with quickly agreed that they did not feel part of the larger Malaysian community that they lived in. Many of them expressed concerns that their Malaysian neighbors might contact “Rela” if they were disruptive in any way. All agreed that the ideal resolution to their problems would be a return to a safe and free Northern Rakhine State in Burma, but no one thought that was realistic in the near future. Similarly, they would all welcome the opportunity to stay legally in Malaysia, since they have already been living in the country for a long time. In the end, most of the men agreed that they would be happy to live anywhere that would allow them to live there legally, with the hope that they could someday live without fear.

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