To mark World Refugees Day on 20 June, we carry a three-part story by Antonio Graceffo on the difficult and perilous plight of Shan refugees in Malaysia.
For seven days, they were locked in a container, traveling in the back of a truck. With no idea where they were going, they may just as well have been sold into slavery or prostitution at the end. But their situation in Burma was so dire that even taking such a risk seemed worthwhile.
In an anonymous housing block in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a Shan refugee, 29-year-old Hsai Yisep (not his real name) told me the story of his desperate escape from a dictatorial regime.
(Most of this text is a transcript of a recorded interview I conducted with Hsai Yisep and other Shan refugees. In some places, I have corrected their grammar, just to make it more readable. But to the extent that I was able, I left the text in their exact words. I have omitted all of their names and been vague about location, for the sake of their safety. – Antonio Graceffo)
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“The Burmese took our farm, so we didn’t have any way to grow food. Everyday they would come to our village and ask for forced labourers. If we didn’t go, they would just take us and make us work. One day, we couldn’t provide enough people, so they took us. We told them we were sick from working for them every day, and that we didn’t have food for our families. So, they beat us. Our friends came that night and helped us escape.
Then we went to Malaysia.
I went to Tachilek (on the Thai border, across from Mae Sai). Then an agent came and took me in a container in the back of a car. We didn’t know where we were going or anything. Seven days. Sometimes at night, we would run or walk through the forest, south, all of the way through Thailand to Malaysia.
When I first came to Malaysia it was so difficult. We didn’t have any ID card and we couldn’t speak Malay or English. I learned a little English here,” concluded Hsai Yisep
We were seated on the floor, sharing bowls of fresh fruit. At first, the refugees were understandably nervous about talking to me. These are people whose lives hang by tiny threads and blow with the political wind.
One of the refugees suddenly said that he recognised me from the videos I had made with the Shan State Army in 2007 and 2008. He smiled broadly. “I saw you on youtube, and now you are here.” He began telling the other men about me, and several of them turned out to be fans of Martial Arts Odyssey. Suddenly, my job got a lot easier.
The Youtube fan sat next to me and opened up, telling me about the arduous life of the refugee. Little by little, other refugees joined us, and began adding information of their own.
The Youtube fan told me, “Most of the Shan in Malaysia try to find work in restaurants. Some of them can speak Chinese, so they are lucky. They can work in restaurants or as sales promoters. A few of my friends can work in a workshop. They can get better pay if they know how to fix motorcycles and cars. It depends on your experience. If you can speak Chinese, maybe you can get RM800 or RM1000 (about US$260-$330). Some people get RM1200 per month.” He himself was working in a restaurant.
Most of the Shan refugees in Malaysia do not have a Burmese passport or ID card. Inside Burma, it is extremely difficult for the ethnic peoples to obtain these types of documents. For this reason, their only means of leaving the country is to travel, crossing borders illegally. When they arrive in their destination country, whether it be Thailand or Malaysia, it is impossible to obtain a work permit or residency visa, because they don’t have a passport. This relegates the refugees to working illegally and for the lowest wages.
A few of the Shan men I spoke to on this day were university graduates, but they were happy to get work as bus boys in restaurants, earning a few hundred dollars per month.
Although very few of the refugees had any clear plan upon their arrival in Malaysia, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, they explained to me that, after arriving in Malaysia, the Shan refugees should register with the Shan community office. The community will then issue them an ID card. The community card is not a legal residency permit, but at least they have something in their pocket when and if they get arrested. Next, the community will help them to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). The final step is that they get in a long queue, awaiting resettlement in a third country.
The line ahead of them moves very slowly, as less than 3 per cent of the Shan in Malaysia will be resettled in a given year. But the line behind them grows longer and longer, as more Shan are driven from their homes by the military junta (SPDC).
But what would happen if they were caught by the police? I asked a leader of the Shan community office.
“Get caught by the police, if you have the UNHCR card it is not a big problem. But if you have only the Shan community ID card, this is a problem. Sometimes they have combined raids with police and Rela,” replied the leader.
Rela is a volunteer police organisation which enforces immigration law. Many international observers and even the Malaysian Bar have petitioned the government to close this force down. Instead, Rela numbers increase each year. Members are often paid bounties for each refugee they capture.
As the government doesn’t recognise the UNHCR card as a legal residency permit in Malaysia, sometimes even UN-registered refugees can be arrested.
“Every Sunday, the police wait by the lift and ask for your documents. If you don’t have any, they arrest you. They take you to the police station and (allegedly) ask for money. Sometimes our members come here to do their member card and the police catch them. They are scared to come here.”
“When people get arrested they have to call the centre and we go to get them out of jail. It costs a lot of money. Luckily, the government and the UNHCR together have said that the police will not arrest our people who have UNHCR card.”
With about 4000 completely undocumented Shan refugees wandering around, it is just a roll of the dice to see who will get picked up.
“We have about two to three times per week, someone is arrested and we have to go get them out of jail.” said the leader.
“When a Shan refugee is arrested, after two or three days, the authorities will report to the Shan Community office that they have some of our Shan in jail. If it is too far, we cannot go there.”
The Shan community office has almost no money. So, even purchasing petrol or train tickets to go bail people out of jail can be problematic.
“If it is close by, we can go there. The police tell us to bring a letter from the police officer who arrested them, and we must go to meet them. Some of the officers are nice, and they will help. Some cases we can negotiate, and some cases we cannot.”
“If we cannot get the refugees out, then they stay 14 days in lockup. After that, they are sentenced to jail. Some people serve four or five months in jail. After the jail, they are sent to the camp. The camp means ready to deport. Some have been sent back to Burma. But some have been in the camp for a long time.”
When I did similar stories on other Burmese ethnics, I was told that there are refugees stuck in the detention camp for years, with no end in sight. Burma often will not accept them and certainly won’t pay for their deportation. This leaves them in legal limbo.
“If they are in the camp, we report to UNHCR. Then, later, UNHCR will go interview them and maybe UNHCR will bail them out of the camp.”
“UNHCR helps us a lot,” said the Shan leader.
He explained that the Shan community office has no real power. “We also cannot do anything. The Malaysian government says the UNHCR card is not a legal document to remain in Malaysia. They say passports only. If we have the card, they will check to make sure it is a real one because there are a lot of fake ones around.”
“Unfortunately our members think we have more power than we have. If they get arrested or have a car accident or pregnancy, they come to us for help. But actually, we can do nothing. We are also dependent on UNHCR.”
“Last month, we had 10 people arrested. Some we could bail out, some we couldn’t. Every month, it depends on the raid operations. Most of the Shan don’t have a passport. Very few come as students, with passport. But very few.”
I asked why they didn’t just go to Thailand.
“In Thailand it is easier to hide because Shan look like Thai and speak like Thai. But in Malaysia, Shan can get recognised by the UNHCR,” one refugee explained.
Victims of genocide can often become official refugees, registered with UNHCR, and possibly be resettled in a third country. To prove an allegation of genocide, the victims must all be of a recognised ethnic group. The most well-known example, of course, was Hitler’s genocide against the Jews in the Second World War. The Jews are a well-defined group, and it was clear that Hitler was trying to exterminate them. For some of Burma’s other ethnics, such as Chin and Padaung (the Long Neck Karen) getting recognised as a distinct ethnic group was no problem.
It is a well known fact among cross-border aid workers and refugees alike, that the UNHCR, at least in Thailand, does not recognise the Shan as a distinct ethnic group. The Shan are one of several Tai peoples, who migrated down from Sipsong Panna, China, millennia ago. Other members of the Tai race include the Thais and the Lao. One of the greatest hurdles for people working on Shan aid projects is getting UNHCR to recognise that the Shan are a distinct group of people, with their own religion, language, and culture, which, although related to Thai, is not Thai.
This is one of the main reasons why four times as many Chin refugees are resettled from Malaysia, than Shan.
Where it is difficult for the Shan to be recognised by UNHCR in Malaysia, it is nearly impossible in Thailand. So, coming to Malaysia, while more risky from a security standpoint, is a more attractive choice to people who would rather face any hardship than be returned to Burma.
One of the Shan men told me had done basically all that he could and now his case was in the hands of God. He had been in Malaysia since 2009 and managed to register with the UNHCR. At this point, he and his wife and child could only stand, feebly by, awaiting resettlement.
“I don’t know if I will get resettled. I hope so.” He said. “But it depends on UNHCR. No one can say what they will do or when.”
The men were all quick to praise the help they did receive from UNHCR. At least there seems to be some hope, but the road to freedom is still a long way off for these people who have already suffered so much.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.