On 23 June 2009 Burma army troops captured a number of villagers in central Karen State. An entire family, including 2 children (ages 4 and 13) and a grandmother (65), was executed. 2 other children managed to escape and are now refugees in Thailand. These children will live with the trauma of witnessing their family killed for the rest of their lives, though they are now in relative safety across the border.
Burma, in fact, has been ranked as the world’s third largest source of refugees after Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the Thai / Burma border is not the only place you will be confronted with people who have been forced to flee political, ethnic and religious persecution in Burma.
Thousands of refugees escaping extensive human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese military junta, have been arriving in Malaysia, with the hope of not only registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but of eventually being resettled in a third country.
Many of the approximately 40,000 Burmese refugees who have resettled in the United States since 1995, have come via Malaysia.
Refugees in Malaysia are regarded as illegal migrants as they have fled Burma and do not have passports. As such they are not extended any of the basic rights we regard as ‘normal’ in countries like Australia. Their children cannot go to school, their sick do not have access to medical care, and those who manage to find menial work are too often exploited and abused by employers.
Upon arrival in Malaysia, refugees are often arrested by the authorities, regardless of whether they have UNHCR papers. They can be imprisoned, taken to detention camps and /or taken to the Malaysia / Thai border for deportation. At the border these men, women and children become the prey of human traffickers, who demand individual ‘ransom’, which according to some reports, includes bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur to which money should be transferred. Those unable to pay are handed over to peddlers in Thailand, ranging from brothel owners to fishing boat cartels. Women are usually sold into the sex industry.
Ikatan Relawan Rakyat ( RELA), translated ‘Volunteers of Malaysian People’, a paramilitary civil volunteer corps, formed by the Malaysian government, is more feared by the refugees than the police. A typical tactic used to harass and arrest refugees is for RELA groups to position themselves outside churches and market places on a Sunday, where they know many refugees will be.
Persons identified as asylum seekers and refugees on their way to a third country, are seen as threats to national security.
In an interview with The New York Times, RELA director-general, Zaidon Asmuni, said, “We have no more Communists at the moment, but we are now facing illegal immigrants. As you know, in Malaysia, illegal immigrants are enemy No. 2.”
When Jo Hain and I visited the Kachin refugees in Kuala Lumpur in April this year, we heard firsthand the stories of abuse and harassment, and the daily struggle to simply survive as a refugee in Malaysia.
The Kachin are one of about 11 ethnic groups in Burma, and Kachin state is found to the far north and borders India to the west and China to the northeast. According to a March 2010 report, there are over 4,000 Kachin refugees in Malaysia, half of which are not officially registered.
Just before we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, bringing with us clothes, baby items, vitamins, toys, and educational items, several hundred refugees from Burma were arrested and taken to detention camps. These included young mothers with children, some of whom had been waiting at a bus stop to go back home.
And what is ‘home’ for Kachin refugees in Malaysia? It is usual for several families to live in one apartment on the outskirts of the city. There is no furniture (perhaps mattresses are spread out to sleep on at night), no air conditioning. Rents are high, and with food and transport costs it is not surprising that up to 15 people can exist in one 4 room apartment.
But the Kachin are resilient, hopeful and are striving to carve out a life for themselves while they wait, sometimes up to four years, for the chance to be resettled to a third country. There is now a school run by volunteer Kachin teachers for primary and secondary students. A pre school is also being set up for the little ones.
Many of the women have begun sewing and crocheting, with the goal of setting up an income generating business in Kuala Lumpur. Jo and I had the joy and privilege of bringing enough money with us, which had been donated by several friends from New Zealand, for two more industrial sewing machines to be purchased. To witness the excitement and enthusiasm of the young girls and older women, as they showed us what they had already created, and chatted with us about future projects, is one of the many highlights experienced on this brief trip.