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Even in safety of Malaysia, Rohingya migrants face bleak prospects

Originally appeared in The New York Times

June 3, 2015

By Chris Buckley

The Rohingya migrants from Myanmar who landed desperate and exhausted in Malaysia last month joined a community of some 75,000 Rohingya, many of whom have lived here for years, even decades.

But to judge from the hardships even the long-term asylum-seekers face, the latest wave has traded one version of poverty and exclusion for another, somewhat milder one, where it will be difficult to establish a secure foothold or to resettle in third countries.

“From a country, we have become stateless, and as refugees we have become stateless again,” said Mohammed Noor, the managing director of Rohingya Vision TV, an online news service based in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. “We’re a floating people now, floating everywhere without any hope, without any papers.”
Three years after the start of the bloodshed in Myanmar that prompted an exodus of Rohingya refugees, an event commemorated here with prayers and speeches on Wednesday, their marginalization across Southeast Asia has largely left them muted bystanders in the debate over their future.

At a spare, concrete hall here on Wednesday, about 200 Rohingya men gathered to observe the third anniversary of the killing of 10 Rohingya by villagers in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, after three Muslim Rohingya were accused of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

The violence signaled the start of a wave of persecution that has prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to nearby Bangladesh or to board boats to Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries.

The gathering was a rare display of collective political assertion by the Rohingya in Malaysia, many of whom wore red T-shirts declaring, “I am Rohingya.”

Noting that the hall was only half full, Faridullah bin Dudumiya, a Muslim cleric who has lived as a refugee here for 25 years, said he was both proud and a little discouraged.

“It’s not often we’re acting as a community,” Mr. Faridullah, 47, said. “But it seems our voice is still not strong enough, even on this day.”

“It’s difficult,” he added. “We are illegal people.”

Many Rohingya here believe that their circumstances are part of an elaborate plot by the government in Myanmar to keep them weak and stigmatized, even in exile. Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, considers them illegitimate Muslim intruders from what is now Bangladesh, and in 1982, many were stripped of their citizenship. Many of those still in Myanmar are confined to camps and villages guarded by checkpoints.

Here in Malaysia, their status as refugees and unregistered migrants bars them from sending their children to government schools, meaning that many receive little or no education, and from holding jobs, although necessity compels most of the men to find menial, off-the-books labor.

But Rohingya leaders and organizers in Malaysia, as well as experts, said that the problems facing their diaspora also lay within Rohingya society.

“Decades of policies in Myanmar have left many Rohingya illiterate and impoverished, and that’s hard to shake off as refugees,” Gerhard Hoffstaedter, an anthropologist from the University of Queensland in Australia, said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur, where he is studying the Rohingya and other refugee groups in Malaysia.

The Rohingya also “lack the organization and rich networks that other, more successful refugee groups can tap,” he said. He cited the example of the Chin, another migrant group from Myanmar, who have been more effective at establishing schools and securing resettlement in third countries, especially the United States.

“The Rohingya have an amazing capacity for suffering, but they’ve been given so few stories of success,” he said.

Even so, compared with the bamboo shacks and fetid detention camps that many Rohingya people have fled in Myanmar, Malaysia offers some hope and opportunity.

In several neighborhoods on the edge of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, Rohingya have established enclaves in concrete apartment blocks and open-air markets. Here in the Ampang district, tens of thousands of Rohingya are crammed into apartments and dilapidated houses that often hold several families each.

Many Rohingya men find itinerant work on construction sites and in cheap restaurants, and some women also work in stalls and shops.

In the Selayang neighborhood, hundreds of Rohingya stall holders sell fruit and vegetables, mixing with other poor migrants, including many from Myanmar.

“We are not rich people, but this is better than what we left behind,” said Mohammed Ayub, a Rohingya migrant who has lived in Malaysia for three years and runs a tailor shop in Taman Muda, a heavily Rohingya neighborhood on the edge of Kuala Lumpur. “What is most important is that we have some security here. We don’t have much, but we have some security.”

Still, many Rohingya had nursed visions of a kinder reception in Malaysia, including decent jobs and schools, and swift assignment to a new country, like the United States or Australia.

Most pressing of all, many migrants said they faced a long, uncertain wait for the United Nations refugee agency office in Kuala Lumpur to accredit them as refugees, entitling them to a precious identity card that many see as their best protection against the risk of detention or abuse by the police and officials.

“It’s almost impossible to get the U.N. card,” said Ambiya Kadahusan, a 21-year-old Rohingya who said she had waited fruitlessly for nearly a year for a response to her application. “Without a card, we feel it’s unsafe to go out and look for work or even visit friends.

“The police check: ‘Where are you from? Are you a Bangladeshi worker?’ And sometimes you have to pay some money to be let go.”

For partial protection, recently arrived Rohingya often turn to the Rohingya Society in Malaysia, a grass-roots organization that supplies newly arrived migrants with papers giving their names, birth dates and backgrounds. The organization also hands out semblances of official documents, like marriage certificates and divorce papers, that Rohingya cannot get from the Malaysian government.

The Rohingya have also tried to overcome their hardships by establishing crowded, rudimentary schools; by helping each other find work; and by joining organizations that provide services, advice and a sense of solidarity.

“The Rohingya are actively employing strategies of community self-protection,” said Matthew Smith, an executive director of Fortify Rights, an organization based in Bangkok that has monitored the conditions of the Rohingya. “The government of Malaysia is not providing adequate protection, and so they have to draw more on their own resources.”

But those resources are limited by the poverty of the migrants, and by the desperate needs of the recent influx.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it supported 31 “learning centers” across Malaysia for Rohingya children, and there are other schools run by Rohingya with no United Nations support. But Abdul Ghani, the president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human Rights Organization Malaysia, said that only a small fraction of Rohingya children in Malaysia received a steady education.

Ismail Ahmad, a Rohingya practitioner of traditional medicine who fled Myanmar in 2007, said, “I try to help these people, because I have also suffered.” He said he was helping a group of 60 or so Rohingya migrants, many of whom arrived in recent months.

“But we don’t have much money for medicine or food, so often there is not much we can do,” he said. He showed a poultice of herbs wrapped in cloth and tied around a warm brick, which he used to treat paralysis and cramps that migrants suffered after long sea voyages crammed in holds, and sometimes months in detention.

“Sometimes they have lived for two or three months in the hold, and so they cannot walk by themselves,” he said. “But this is the best treatment we can offer.”


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