They tell the story of life in Burma—why they had to flee—and why
their lives are still at risk in Malaysia.
According to The Enforcement Director for the Malaysian Immigration Department, Ishak Muhammed, “Every foreigner in our country must have a proper passport. As far as immigration is concerned there are no refugees in my country. That is quite clear. Period. ”
Yet the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered over 46,600 refugees living in Malaysia and many NGOs estimate the total number of refugees in Malaysia is 100,000. According to the United Nations 90% of new refugees to Malaysia are from Burma.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, which protects the rights of refugees. What this means is that after fleeing the abusive Burmese military dictatorship these girls and boys, women and men still lack fundamental freedom and basic human rights in Malaysia.
They cannot go to the hospital for fear of the RELA. If they are hit by a car, it is they who have to flee. If they are offered a better job in another country, they cannot accept the offer—because they cannot cross the border without risking arrest–which could result in their being sold to traffickers. They are not able to apply for higher education–or even a driver’s license. They cannot file a complaint against any individual or organization for mistreatment and this results in rampant exploitation, including rape, of the refugees by their employers.
The Malaysian government refers to the refugees as “illegals” because they have no papers and it leaves them extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment where those that are meant to protect view them as easy prey.
In 1995 leading human rights activist Irene Fernandez, founder of the NGO Tenaganita, was arrested and charged with publishing false information when she exposed the inhumane conditions that refugees and migrants faced in the Malaysian prisons and detention camps. It took 13 years for her acquittal. While Ms Fernandez has remained a champion for refugee and migrant rights, the conditions in the prisons and camps remain deplorable—I heard the following from several refugees whom I interviewed at one of the Burmese community centers:
“Often there are up to 50 people cramped into one small space. So small we must sleep cupped together. They force us to stand up and down all day in the hot sun—I don't know why they make us do it. Sometimes there is a water pipe and we use little bit of water for everything: cleaning, drinking and for the toilet. Sometimes there is no water supply at all. ”
In prison, women are frequently sexually abused and men are “caned” as part of their sentence: thrashed with a whip that has been dipped in acid.
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee's recently released report regarding the extortion and trafficking of Burmese migrants in Malaysia and southern Thailand was the primary topic of discussion between US Senator Lugar and Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman during their meeting in mid May 2009.
According the the Senate Office, the Minister emphasized that Prime Minister Najib seriously viewed allegations contained in the report and had announced steps to review such. The Minister also asked that the Committee provide Malaysia with details of the Committee’s findings to assist Malaysia in its review of the allegations. He implied that Malaysia’s own investigation would be hampered without that information.
Committee staff attending the meeting responded that a) there are sources within Malaysia who have already provided or could provide Malaysia authorities with similar details; and that b) details received by the Committee related to alleged traffickers, their accomplices, telephone numbers, and bank account numbers to which Burmese victims made payments were being turned over to the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments. Officials from those Departments would then determine what information might eventually be shared with Malaysia and Thai officials. In late June the Malaysian government issued a statement saying they had launched and completed their own investigation and the allegations were “baseless”.
While the Malaysian government begins to come under scrutiny the refugees are reporting a reduced number of trafficking incidents, though the Rela raids have not diminished in frequency. These two facts combine to create severe overcrowding in the detention camps, where conditions grow worse by the day. In May 2009, 27 refugees who had been held at a detention center in Penang were hospitalized for leptospirosis, a potentially fatal disease in this case caused by water contaminated from rat urine. So far at least one of these refugees has died from the disease.
Jack calls me today to tell me his brother contacted him from one of these detention centers. Due to lack of space, they have moved him to a camp that has no overhead shelter. The refugees are unprotected from the early monsoon rains and there food is given to them on the dirt ground, without any plates. Most of them are sick with fever and/or diarreah.
While the story is grim there is hope that the corrupt policies inside of Malaysia will begin to change when the international community demonstrates its outrage.
Please contact the Malaysian Ambassador in your country and express your concern for the Burmese refugees living at risk in Malaysia. Visit our How to help section to learn more.
The Malaysian government must be held accountable for its human rights violations, but the problem addressed in this story begins in Burma.
Until peace and democracy are restored in Burma the suffering will continue.
One day Htut Kuang and I both want to escape the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur so we meet in a small hotel garden where he shares with me more about his life in Burma and his life here in Malaysia, where he's still not safe.
I say to him that after three years living as a slave on a fishing boat, he must have a different perspective on things than most of us.
Htut Kuang reponds: “I think life is always changing. It's like the river, it's always flowing—I cannot touch the same water again.”
Copyright © Karen Zusman. All rights reserved. New York, NY, US.