Monday, July 18, 2016


Malaysian police arrested Zafar for illegal entry, and deported him back to Thailand, where he was arrested…for illegal entry… and sent to jail before being deported back to Myanmar (again). Knowing that he faced death back in Myanmar, he managed to convince the boatman to….send him back to Malaysia instead. After much struggling (including one more arrest, deportation, and prison sentence), he finally made his way to Kuala Lumpur through an agent.

But although he made it to Malaysia, Zafar tells us that he was deported, not once or twice, but…

He was deported from Malaysia for a total of… 12 times!

Yes, in the span of 7 years (1996-2003), less time than most of us take to finish primary school, Zafar was arrested, deported, and made it back to Malaysia 12 times, an average of 1.7 times a year. Every single time he was deported, he was sent to Thailand, and he made his way back via a human trafficking operation which he had to pay (prices varied from RM1200 – RM2150, depending on the trafficker).

If they had no money? Well…

“If we didn’t have money, they would beat us. In some cases, they even shot to death some of us with a pistol. They would threaten us to pay them all we had, or they would send us back to Myanmar.” – Zafar

In addition to risking his life just to pass the Thailand-Malaysian border, he also had to risk his life travelling from the border to KL, including hiding in the backs of trucks and being stuffed into car boots where he almost suffocated to death. He couldn’t stay in Thailand because it was too close to Myanmar, and Malaysia was his only hope for survival, enough for him to risk his life every single time to make it back into Malaysia.

He asked the UN for help when he was in Malaysia, but wasn’t acknowledged as a refugee

Zafar continued the fight for his fellow Rohingyans by establishing the Myanmar Ethic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) in 1998. In the year 2000, Zafar approached the Malaysian chapter of the UNHCR for help and to request for Refugee status.

After listening to his story, UNHCR refused to acknowledge Zafar as a refugee because he couldn’t sufficiently prove that he was deserving of refugee status.

To be fair, it’s not that the UNHCR doesn’t like him or anything. There is actually an application to be recognized as a refugee, and Zafar failed the application process the first time because he failed to produce the necessary documents for registration (birth cert, IC, passport, etc). This requirement is especially troublesome for Rohingyans as the Myanmarese government revoked their IDs and documentations. However, after appealing to the UNHCR to review his application, he finally got himself registered as a refugee. But that’s not the end of his problems…

Unfortunately, because he’s a refugee, Zafar cannot own any property, business, or vehicle, secure a legal job, and has no access to basic amenities such as government healthcare or schools, even though he legally married a Malaysian wife. (His wife, his father-in-law, and himself had to beg the Registration Department with tears in their eyes multiple times in order to get married, and after being constantly rejected, a kind-hearted Perak mufti finally agreed to legally marry him and his wife under Islamic law, making their marital status legal).

In fact, a doctor friend from a local gov hospital told us a heartbreaking story about the plight of refugees in Malaysia who are not part of the “privileged class”:

“I have seen pregnant women who are already in the beginnings of labour being turned away from government hospitals because they couldn’t afford to pay and were not eligible for government facilities when they had no proper documentations.

I’ve overruled the medical staff multiple times and told them to get the OT (operating theatre) ready so I could save the mother and child. As to who was going to pay, that was not my primary concern.”- Anonymous doctor friend

This makes Mr. Zafar’s story all the more amazing. As an unrecognized refugee, he managed to set up MERHROM, have an income through a kedai runcit and gerai makanan (both under his wife’s name), bring attention the ASEAN and UN leaders as to the plight of the refugees, and even managed to help Malaysians when they needed it. (Fun fact: MERHROM raised and donated RM25,000 worth of goods to the Kelantan flood victims of 2015!) His efforts has also been internationally recognized, with organizations from Hong Kong, Korea, UK and the US inviting him over to give him awards, but he is unable to attend and receive such awards(and speaking engagements) because he doesn’t have travel documents.

There are more than 154,000 refugees currently in Malaysia, most of whom live without basic rights and protection. While most of us think it can lead to increased crime rates, this is actually not true. In fact, the UNHCR actually makes it a point to screen all asylum-seekers before accepting them into the country, and that those who commit crimes are not eligible for refugee status, so there is a huge incentive for refugees to follow the law in Malaysia.

In fact, according to our Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, only 1% of all crimes in Malaysia are committed by them, though he did also say that we shouldn’t make the issue worse by hiring them, sheltering them, or renting properties out to them. 

Mr. Zafar disagrees however:

“We’re not asking for sympathy or for donations. All we ask if that we be given a legal identity, so that we can find work to provide for ourselves, for our children to go to schools, and for us to build a life."

We have a lot that we want to contribute to Malaysia, and we love Malaysia, because she has provided for us a hope and a life again. I ask that Malaysians and the Malaysian government just give us a chance.“

What can we do then?

Well, we could write to our MPs to bring the matter of Malaysia’s treatment of refugees up to Parliament, andlobby our government to formally sign the UN Convention of Refugees. Additionally, you could also donate to organizations like the UNHCR or MERHROM (they need money and supplies like rice, toiletries, etc); contact themhere to set up a donation time that is appropriate. If you own a business, perhaps you could consider giving refugees a chance to be fairly employed in your organization as well. Together, we can work to make Malaysia a welcoming second home to those who have unfortunately lost theirs.