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Rohingya in transit long for a life of dignity

A Rohingya protest in Kuala Lumpur in 2017

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Mustafa K Anuar catches a glimpse of the tremendous challenges confronting Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.

Used in the most spartan way possible, the physical space in the rented house functions as a community centre that serves the basic needs of Rohingya refugees in the area around Butterworth.

Packages of foodstuff fill the centre of the house. Seated in one corner on red plastic chairs were Rohingya refugees Zabidee, 28, and Mahfooz, 34 (not their real names), who were there to help prepare the distribution of the packages, which were donated by the Malaysian public.

Mahfooz, who has been in a state of transit in Malaysia for the past 14 years, pointed out that the foodstuff was meant for Rohingya victims of the recent floods in Penang.

This is partly because the state government did not provide the needed assistance to these people, who are already subjected to a harsh existence daily.

In recalling the harrowing experience of the Rohingya community in Myanmar, Mahfooz insisted that it was wrong to label – as often asserted by researchers, the media and certain international bodies – members of the community as “stateless”.

“We had everything in life: house, job, educational opportunities and other necessities.

“But we’ve been robbed of all these, including our land, by the Myanmar regime.

“Before 1982, everyone was equal in Myanmar, including the Rohingya.”

In October 1982, the Burmese Citizenship Law was instituted, and with the exception of the Kaman people, most Muslims in the country were denied an ethnic minority classification, and hence, were refused Burmese citizenship.

Painful stories

Stripped of their rights as citizens, many Rohingya – including people like Mahfooz and Zabidee – were compelled to flee their beloved country, particularly because of the repression, harassment, violence and humiliation meted out by Myanmar’s military regime and some Buddhist vigilantes.

Many were savagely killed, while some women were brutally raped before the eyes of their loved ones.

The weight of sadness, pain and anger descended upon Mahfooz and Zabidee when they recounted their harrowing experience of being thrown out of their country and trafficked or smuggled by opportunistic and unscrupulous people, who ferried them on high seas to Malaysia.

To be clear, such painful stories have been told time and again to outsiders, such as researchers, which indicate that one can only enquire so much from them about their gut-wrenching past.

Indeed, re-telling these stories can be highly traumatic for some.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of the end of May last year, there were some 150,200 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia.

Some 133,700 were from Myanmar, comprising 58,600 Rohingya, 39,000 Chins, 10,200 Myanmar Muslims, 4,300 Rakhines and Arakanese, and other ethnicities from Myanmar.

However, Suaram, in its human rights report of 2016, estimates that there are still about 25,000 to 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers still unregistered.

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But, life’s ordeal and uncertainties did not stop after they left their homeland. The Rohingya, particularly those who are not documented, face immense challenges in their daily lives.

Mahfooz said those who did not have legal status in Malaysia did not have the basic rights to employment, education and healthcare.

Additionally, these undocumented people are not protected by the law, therefore, they are vulnerable to abuse, harassment, threats, exploitation, violence, extortion, humiliation and even detention.

The contention of the Malaysian government is that it does not recognise any rights of refugees and asylum seekers because they are in transit to a third country.

But, this is the dilemma haunting refugees and asylum seekers. While waiting for their turn – which can take a very long time – to be sent to a third country, if at all, they have to fend for themselves in terms of getting food, shelter, education and healthcare.

The risks of getting a job

Mahfooz said it was very difficult to get a job, especially when one was not documented, such as not having a UNHCR card.

And even if one does land a job, one is potentially exposed to exploitation, extortion and abuse.

Besides, said Mahfooz, an undocumented person risks getting caught by police for the mere fact that he or she does not have legal papers.

Zabidee said many refugees were compelled by their circumstances to work in the so-called “black economy” as “undocumented workers”, with all the vulnerabilities that this brought.

Over the years, said long-time resident Mahfooz, many things had changed.

When he started working some 14 years ago, employers did not exploit refugee workers.

Now, the ruthless ones do, such as keeping workers’ one month’s pay so as to put a leash on them.

Being undocumented, added Mahfooz, such workers were often given low-paying and highly insecure jobs.

They work long hours without rest periods, holidays and overtime payments. There have also been cases of employers not paying wages.

Zabidee said they did not get work regularly. “There are days we’re out of work.”

With the depletion of financial resources arising from temporary unemployment, many have to borrow money from fellow refugees to get by.

This is where a community network provides a kind of social safety net to help those in need.

However, it is obvious that such financial assistance cannot be sustained on a long-term basis “because everyone here is struggling to make ends meet”. Some of them are also obliged to send money to their families in Myanmar, or elsewhere, who are in dire straits.

Education for the Rohingya

Apart from employment, the Rohingya community is concerned about the education of its children, as well as adults deprived of a formal education prior to their exodus from Myanmar.

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Education is considered as one of the tools for empowerment and self-determination, and also a means to rebuild the community here and at its final destination.

Unfortunately, Rohingya children are prohibited by the Malaysian government from getting enrolled in government schools.

This is despite the fact that Malaysia is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which means that it is duty-bound to protect and enhance the rights of all children, including refugees.

As a result, according to UNHCR’s education unit in Malaysia, only 39% of children of school-going age in the community had access to any kind of education as of December 2016.

These children often find themselves doing odd jobs, such as collecting items to be recycled. Worse, some of them join the bad hats.

Education can be largely obtained from some 120 informal learning centres throughout the country run by refugee communities and local civil society organisations, with the support of the UNCHR.

Many of these centres are riddled with problems, like overcrowded classrooms, and limited funding and resources.

These centres also cater to adult education. According to Angeline Loh, a volunteer and class facilitator at a learning centre in Butterworth, the request for such classes came from refugee teachers themselves in 2016.

Held for two hours once a week, these classes are aimed at empowering refugees, especially the women, through training in literacy, livelihood skills and leadership. The lessons taught are English, baking, computer, maths and verbal communication.

Loh said it was “a means of creating a safe space for refugee women to socialise, increase their knowledge, and share ideas and common problems, find solutions and help, if possible”.

Facilitators also train refugee volunteers so that they can take over the role in the future, as a way of making them independent and self-sustaining.

Loh said a problem faced by facilitators at such centres was students’ different levels of education. They need to pitch their lessons so that all students can somehow be placed on the same page, so to speak.

There are cultural problems, too, that hinder the progress of female students. For instance, there are still people in the community who feel that women’s place is at home. This is why some mothers-in-law or husbands do not see the need for women to get educated, which gives rise to a few dropouts.

This social phenomenon, however, has strengthened the resolve of Rohingya activists, such as Sharifah Shakirah, director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Rohingya Women Development Network, to work towards empowering Rohingya women, given that there have been cases of girls being married off at a young age.

At the Rohingya: What Can We Do? forum organised by Art for Grabs, in collaboration with the European Union Delegation in Malaysia, in Petaling Jaya recently, Sharifah stressed that more women needed to be assertive so that they would be able to stand for their rights, and not made to be pushovers.  This is also aimed at building their self-esteem.

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A recent proposal of volunteer group Serantau Muslim may provide a ray of hope for some Rohingya children in Malaysia. Several state muftis have given their support to the idea of allowing these children to be enrolled in state religious schools.

The sick and healthcare

Healthcare is another important issue that the Rohingya community is grappling with.

“When we fall sick, we go to private clinics,” said Zabidee. He said this was because they wanted to avoid going to hospitals, where in some cases, Rohingya patients were reported to the authorities, resulting in them being sent to detention centres.

The implications of being detained are severe, especially for families whose sole breadwinners are the men. In certain cases, the detention of fathers means that mothers and children have to resort to begging just to survive.

Another reason why the sick avoided hospitals, cautioned Zabidee, was that certain hospitals would ask if they were able to pay before accepting them as patients. He said in certain cases, hospital authorities would “keep” babies delivered on hospital premises until the fees were paid in full. “And, there’s no itemised bill given.”

Mahfooz said some 99% of refugees did not have any savings. Thus, he said, it was not surprising that there had been a few cases of Rohingya who died of treatable diseases, because they could not pay for treatment.

To further illustrate the gravity of the problem, Mahfooz claimed that four bodies of Rohingya refugees were still left idle at a government hospital in Kedah. Those who knew them could not foot the bill of processing the bodies – from cleaning to burial – which came up to RM1,800 per body.

Some attempts have been made over the years, though, to reduce the exclusion from healthcare faced by refugees and asylum seekers, owing to their lack of rights and income.

In October, a nationwide programme offering affordable primary healthcare services for refugees was launched, in a partnership between the UNHCR and primary healthcare provider Qualitas.

And quite recently, there was a pilot project, pioneered by an outfit called The Rohingya Project, aimed at providing 1,000 Rohingya in Malaysia, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia with digital identity cards, which would enable them access to public services, such as education and healthcare.

Notwithstanding the various problems – which also include xenophobia, racism and sexism in Malaysia – they have been grappling with, Mahfooz and Zabidee said they appreciated the fact that the Malaysian government allowed them to stay. “It’s better than nothing,” snapped Mahfooz.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

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