Malaysia is a largely urban country, with 60 per cent of the population living in cities. Life for a refugee in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, is challenging. Refugees cannot work legally and most live in fear of detention, despite having received a refugee card from UNHCR. Gerry Adams has the story...
NARRATOR: It's Sunday morning and the 25 refugees who share this apartment are waking up and preparing for church. Lal Pe Nu, a Burmese refugee, is a deacon so he and his family hurry to arrive before the service starts. Sunday is the one day of the week they will all venture out of this cramped apartment. A local church allows the refugees to hold their own service and is one of the few times this community comes together and forgets the violence they left behind.
Lal Pe Nu: A soldier pointed a pistol in my mouth and ordered me to move my daughter away who was sitting on my legs. My daughter did not want to go away from me, even though I asked her. My two other daughters were crying loudly and then the soldier grabbed my daughter and threw her out of the house. Then she did not dare to cry out, she just wept.
NARRATOR: The family is ethnic Chin from Myanmar. With the aid of smugglers, the family got to Malaysia safely. But when Lal Pe Nu's wife and daughters followed a year later they were caught and thrown in detention for seven months. The experience traumatized the entire family and they live in fear of being imprisoned again.
Lal Pe Nu: When I saw my daughter she was so thin and very, very weak. I could not express how hurt I felt to see them. When I found them, they had already been in detention for 23 days. They didn't understand the language so they were confused. They were so depressed and so downhearted. My daughter told me she may die but I encouraged her and I prayed for her.
NARRATOR: It turns out that their fears of detention were not unjustified. Once they left the service, a police group sent many of the parishioners back to the sanctuary of the church to wait out the raid. Malaysia is an urban country. More than 60% of its population lives in cities. More than seven million people live in the capital Kuala Lumpur and the nearby Klang valley. Most of the migrants come as part of a Malaysian government guest worker programme and work legally in construction and service sectors. However, tens of thousands of refugees have also come to the city looking for refuge. Yet they are not allowed to work legally and this exacerbates their already tenuous existence.
While refugees from Myanmar represent the largest group exiled in Malaysia there are also smaller number of Somalis, Afghans, Sri Lankans and other nationalities. There are over 67,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. However, the refugee community estimate there may be another 30,000 unregistered. Since there are no refugee camps in Malaysia, the uprooted end up in cities like Kuala Lumpur as we hear from Yante Ismael from the refugee office in Malaysia:
Yante Ismael: In light of this, facing a population that's scattered throughout the vast geographic vista, and a population that's frequently mobile, reaching them and trying to provide services to them can be quite a challenge.
NARRATOR: City life poses problems for the refugees and also for those trying to help them. In the urban context the refugees tend to blend into the crowd. And trying to locate, identify and assist these people is a challenge, especially when they're afraid.
A sewing group was formed to help refugee women to support their families and give them more confidence in their new environment. Many come here together to work once a week but mostly they work from home creating handmade traditional crafts that are sold oversees and at local markets.
Swee par is a refugee and teaches other women how to sew. They can't afford to go to private clinics and many can't communicate with the doctors so they need specialized services. This clinic is staffed by volunteers who speak the local languages and understand their circumstances.
While there are services to help the refugees, primary preoccupation remains security. They feel completely vulnerable every time they leave their apartments. UNHCR registers refugees and asylum seekers and issues them a refugee ID card. Registration allows UNHCR to have a record of each refugee and their protection needs. Once they have the card, refugees feel less vulnerable but according to Yante Ismael, it's not a guarantee of complete safety.
Yante Ismael: What we've learned from the refugees is that they do live in a constant state of fear of law enforcement agencies. Many refugees talk to us about raids that's done in order to weed out the undocumented migrants where refugees are also swept up in these operations. And of course this creates a constant state of stress and fear for the refugees.
NARRATOR: For the refugees, life can easily become a cycle of insecurity and poverty. They arrive in debt because they owe money to a smuggler. They can't work so they borrow more. When they're detained, they're obliged to pay fines and they rarely get ahead and many families fall into a spiral of despair.
Tin Thluai: My dream and what I am now praying for is that if I could change my life, our lives, I would change our current fearful life into a peaceful one without fear of arrest.