Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Myanmar refugees in Malaysia: confronting inhumanity – Rama Ramanathan

Mankind’s capacity for acting inhumanely has been much on my mind.

Refugees are asylum seekers, people who flee persecution in their own lands. Why do so many flee Myanmar? The International Rescue
Committee’s report “In Search of Survival and Sanctuary in the City: Refugees from Myanmar/Burma in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 2012” gives the reasons:

Forced labour/portering (25%); human rights abuses (15%); to escape arrest (12%); lack of work opportunities (8%); violence/attacks by the government (8%); to join family/get married (6%); other reasons (26%). 

One refugee summarised:

“The reason we leave is because of human rights abuses. All of our belongings are taken away from us by the government; we are forced to porter for the army; our women have been raped and forced into marriages; our villages have been burned and our people killed. The government has taken everything from us. We have nothing.” [Page 8]

Other responses explain what is meant by “we have nothing”:

“Before the soldiers arrive, everything belongs to the village; but after the soldiers come, everything belongs to them. They take everything.” [Page 39]

“The government took our land to expand their military barracks in Arakan. Without our land, we could no longer farm. They told us we had to work for them to build their camp. We were forced to work until we completed the project. If we could not work, they forced the women in our family to work.” [Page 39]

When the hardships they were subjected to in Myanmar became intolerable, when their lands, homes and businesses were taken from them and they just couldn’t take it anymore, they decided to risk their lives and undertake the journey to Malaysia.

The top 3 ways they came to Malaysia were: by foot (28%), by car (20%) and by boat (16%). Their journeys were arranged by "agents", and they didn’t know the details of the route, despite paying between RM1,500 to 5,000 per person. [Page 41]

When they arrived in Malaysia, was their situation better? The research found:

“Just over 30% of the sample reported experiencing an abuse in the workplace, with non-payment and partial payment of wages being the most frequently reported problem.

Out of 311 respondents, 80% reported not receiving wages for work completed or only receiving partial wages.

The second most frequently reported problem was verbal abuse (42%), followed by on-the-job injury (15%), dismissal without reason
(15%) and physical abuse (6%).”

When the respondents were asked what they most needed, the top 3 responses were:

Information on resettlement and registration (40%), especially the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Card which confers a variety of benefits including lower likelihood of being arrested and higher likelihood of being treated humanely by employers.

Assistance when they are abused (15%). Food, particularly to address malnutrition of children.

I am a sceptical reader and listener. For instance, outrage welled up within me last week when an “expert” Kundalini Yoga instructor
authoritatively claimed on BFM radio that our bodies take one day to digest vegetarian food, but take three days to digest meat.

I have spent much of my career assessing research for the purpose of making claims. I will vouch for this IRC report. Because of the
research methodology which was adopted, and despite the limitations inherent to conducting surveys in the informal sector of any society, I believe the research findings are reliable.

Despite the share of voice the Rohingya have in the media – and I don’t mean to underplay the neediness of the Rohingya – it is worth noting the ethnic composition of Myanmar refugees in Malaysia:

“... the sample generally followed the targeted proportions for each ethnic group, with the ethnic Chin comprising roughly 45% of the sample; Burma Muslim, Karen, and Kachin altogether comprising roughly 40% of the sample; and Arakan, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and Rohingya comprising 15% of the sample.” [Page 35]

Ah, yes. Ethnic composition. This is one of the most troubling things about human nature. Our grasping at our ethnicity for our identity poses great challenges for creating a nation, especially one like Myanmar where there are upwards of 135 ethnic groups. Each group values its history and wants to maintain its identity, even as refugees.

In Myanmar, citizenship depends upon ethnicity. This is article 3 of the Burma Citizenship Law (1982):

“Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the
territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 AD are Burma citizens.”

Members of other ethnic groups may aspire only to the status of “associate citizens” or “naturalised citizens”. Persons with such status – some of whose roots in Myanmar go back several centuries – have limited access to freedom of expression and educational and electoral rights (International Bar Association. Rule of Law in Myanmar: Challenges and Prospects, page 27).

Since Chin, Kachin, and Karen are entitled to full citizenship in Myanmar, why are they fleeing Myanmar? Note the religious identification of the 1003 refugees in the sample:

“In terms of religion, the majority of the respondents are Christian (65%) with a minority belonging to the Buddhist (18%) or Muslim (16%) faiths.” [Page 35]

Many flee Myanmar because of the challenges of ethnicity: except for the Rohingya, the other ethnic groups in the list all have their own insurgent armies. Estimates of their troop sizes range from 600 to 30,000, with a total of 45,000 “insurgents” (see Medha Chaturvedi, Myanmar’s Ethic Divide: The Parallel Struggle). They flee because they don’t want to be "Burmanised" and “Buddhicised.”

What happens when a refugee becomes sick or is among the 5% (!) who are injured at work? One refugee who was treated for a broken leg said that when the hospital discovered he couldn’t pay, they removed the pins they had put in.

Muslim refugees experience higher rates of emotional distress. This is probably because they are excluded from resettlement: they were supposed to be integrated into Malaysian society, but this has not happened and seems unlikely.

The report reveals much more, eg the cramped and dangerous places the refugees live in; the problems of youth and children; how they organise to help themselves; how they avoid detention by the authorities (some police have learned to say “give me money” in
Burmese); their average income; their passion for sending money home; Malaysian and other groups who seek to help them, etc.

I encourage you to read the full report – and the Messiah’s story of the Good Samaritan.

Inhumanity is everywhere. But there are also those who respond humanely. – April 28, 2014.

* Rama Ramanathan blogs at write2rest.blogspot.com.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Committee formed for UNHCR card upgrade

ALOR GAJAH: A high-powered committee has been formed by the Home Ministry to address the problem of forgery involving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) card among illegal immigrants particularly the Myanmars in Malaysia.

Deputy Home Minister Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the committee which was led by the ministry's secretary-General Datuk Seri Mohamad Khalid Shariff will be formulating the best approach on how to upgrade the existing UNHCR card issued to refugees in the country.

He said Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had ordered the committee to hold a meeting with the UNHCR officials as soon as possible.

"During my discussion with the UNHCR two months ago, they admitted that there are forgery cases involving the UNHCR card.

"In that regard, the ministry had decided that it is about time the existing card to be digitised," he told reporters after visiting the Machap Umboo Immigration Detention Centre near here today.

Wan Junaidi said the proposed new card will be fitted with electronic chip that will enable the authorities to determine whether the card is genuine or fake.

He said at present the authorities such as the police, immigration and national registration department personnel had difficulty to ensure the authenticity of the UNHCR card when conducting inspection in operations.

"In the ongoing operations to flush out illegal immigrants, the personnel had to rely on their naked eyes only to determine whether the card is genuine.

"This has became a problem for them," he added.

It was reported that during a crackdown against Myanmar nationals following clashes between Myanmar Muslims and their Buddhist counterparts in Klang Valley last year, it was discovered that 307 of the 1,054 Myanmar nationals rounded by the authorities had fake UNHCR
cards and documents.

On another matter, Wan Junaidi said the ministry was looking for ways to address the problems of infectious diseases involving foreigners in prisons and detention centers in the country.

He said a meeting to discuss the issue will be held early next month involving representatives from the Prison Department, police, immigration and Health Ministry.
"I also would like to advise Malaysian employers to avoid taking illegal immigrants as workers, especially in food-related industries.

"This to avoid infectious diseases such as tuberculosis being spread by the foreigners to the public," he added.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Burma Soldier's siblings living in limbo

By Ellie Bogue of The News-Sentinel
Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 6:51 am

Myo Myint, known for his story in "Burma Soldier," is looking for a little help.

After the documentary, about his life as a soldier who was imprisoned for fifteen years after supporting the democratic movement in Burma, was released in 2011, three of his siblings who still lived in Burma were forced to flee the country as the government began to harass them for their brother's pro democratic stance.

Win Myint, Swe Zin Aye and Me Me Aye are currently living in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp. They are out of Myanmar, but they are caught in limbo as the the US Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration has ended its refugee relocation program from those areas and the Thai government has stopped the registration process for refugees.

Nic Dunlop co-directed the HBO Emmy-nominated film "Burma Soldier," the story of Myo Myint and his life as a Burmese soldier turned activist/political prisoner. In a recent email interview with Dunlop, who lives on the Thai border, he said the three had hoped they would be resettled with the rest of the family in the US.

“Despite the fact that they clearly meet the definition of political refugees, they seem to fall beneath the cracks here in Thailand and remain vulnerable and the situation has stagnated. Thailand has never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and so does not recognize any of the people in these camps as refugees (there about 140,000 of them in camps here). The fate of these people, I'm told, resides with the Thai government,” Dunlop said.

The Thai government said Myo Mint has stopped the registration process for refugees, and the U.S. State Department has told him there is nothing it can do without this.

“When I was in the refugees camp, the UN, the U.S. and other human rights organizations helped us. I hope now they can help them too,” Myo Mint said.

Myo Myint said his three siblings fled the country so quickly that they took no passports or documentation with them. If they try to reenter Myanmar now, they would face a minimum three-year prison term for crossing the border without documentation.

Myo Myint, who became a U.S. citizen last fall and lives on the edge of Fort Wayne's far south side, said he cannot sleep nights thinking about his family who were forced to flee the country because of his role in the documentary.

A few years ago their was talk of disbanding the Thai border refugee camps and sending the remaining refugees back to Myanmar, but Myo Myint said there is nothing for them to return to. Many have lived in the camps for three decades. The areas where they once lived in villages has been heavily land-mined.

Myo Myint said although the current government leaders say they are moving towards a democratic government, they are simply the old regime, no longer dressed in their military uniforms. There is still heavy fighting going on in ethnic areas of Myanmar

“It is just window dressing. There are still political prisoners in the prisons,” Myo Myint said.

Last year when he was in Washington attending a conference, he visited U.S. Sens. Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly and U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman to plead his case. He hoped they could get in touch with the State Department to ask for help. A couple of weeks ago he and 20 some of his acquaintances sat down and wrote letters to the three hoping the more people who contacted them, the more they would try.

Now Myo Myint is reaching out to people in Fort Wayne who would be willing to send letters of support as well. Anyone interested in writing letters can get in touch with him at myomyint63@gmail.com.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Parliament: Malaysia ‘most humane’ to refugees, says Shahidan

KUALA LUMPUR: Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim maintained that the Government was “most humane” to Rohingya refugees although it has not signed the United Nation convention.

In response to a supplementary question in Parliament by Nasrudin Hassan (PAS-Temerloh), the minister said the Government would not forcibly send the refugees, who own proper legal documentation to go back to their countries.

There are 132,187 refugees with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cardholders in the country.

“We will not send them back unless they are willing to do so. It is not our policy to send them back where their lives would be in danger,” he said on Tuesday.

He added that the Government had also borne the cost of sending back the refugees who had no proper legal documentation in the past.

“Whereas, the cost should be split in half but in the end it was Malaysia who paid everything. That is humanity,” he said.

He added the refugees were given proper access to education, food and accommodation through the help from non-governmental organisations.

Although the government was concerned with the plight of Rohingya refugees, he said it could not grant each individual with special passes to allow their stay in the country.

“There are about one million Rohingya people there, if we do that, all of them would want to come here.

“That is why we are holding to international principles that only those with UNCHR cards are allowed to stay,” he said.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Refugee family begins to adjust

Dim San Lian talks about what is different in America compared to Burma.

After seven years of waiting, Pau Thawn Kim and his family were granted access into the United States.

Kim’s family, Burmese refugees who were settled in a refugee camp in Malaysia, have lived in Battle Creek a month. With the help of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the family of five is living in an apartment and seeking employment; but they’re still unaccustomed to American culture.

“I think people don’t realize what it means to be a refugee,” said Kathryn Giroux, a job developer at LSSM. “It takes a lot of courage and a lot of strength to come here with absolutely nothing except one suitcase, maybe. They’re just trying to start over, rebuild their lives in a foreign country that’s not their native language. It’s pretty difficult.”

Every week the agency aids new refugee families in their transition to life in Battle Creek. Most refugees in Battle Creek are Burmese who traveled through Malaysia because they were in fear of being prosecuted for their Christian beliefs. Other refugees have fled their home countries because of war or fears they’ll be prosecuted over their political ideology.

Upon arrival into the United States, refugee families are greeted by LSSM with an interpreter and a culturally appropriate hot meal. They are taken to their new home and spend the next month registering for Social Security, childcare, school, work and whatever else they may need.

“Within the next day the translator comes back to make sure that they are situated in their home,” Giroux said. “Then it’s within the first five days they have their cultural orientation and that goes from general safety to calling 911 in case of emergency, what to do in case of a fire, things like that.”

Giroux said the orientation only lasts about an hour or two and families are given information on English as a Second Language classes and employment.

A stipend of $925 is given to the families for each family member to be paid out over three months. They are provided public assistance to sustain them until they are able to find employment. When the families arrive their homes are already structured with a few furniture pieces and a new mattress.

Fire At Mae La Refugee Camp

A fire broke out in Zone B Section 4 and 5 at Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai Burma Border in Thailand’s Tak Province at March 24 around 9.30pm.

Mae La Fire March 24 (Photo: KIC)

A Karen News reporter, at the camp spoke to a camp resident, Saw Hla Win, who was close to the fire when it broke out.

“We were asleep. Most people were in bed. We heard the camp announcement and people screaming. We just grabbed the baby and ran,” Saw Hla Win said.

Saw Hla Win noted that flames had quickly ripped through the bamboo refugee homes.

“It started near the main road. It’s hard to estimate how many houses are burning, but I guess it’s at the very least 30 houses are destroyed”

Eyewitnesses also said there is a possibility a warehouse storing materials for refugees may have been partially destroyed by the fire.

By 10.10 pm the camp residents and a local Thai fire truck had the fire under control.

According to Thai environmental officials Tak Province is currently one of the worst affected regions plagued by forest fires.

Fires have been a constant and recurring danger in Thailand’s nine refugee camps, where almost 130,000 refugees live. The homes of camp residents are made of wood or bamboo and roofs are covered with dry leaves.

In February 2012 a fire in Umpiem Mai refugee camp destroyed more than 1,000 homes affecting 4,400 refugees, while in December 2013 a fire destroyed approximately 120 homes in Thailand’s largest refugee camp, Mae La, leaving 600 refugees homeless. Later that year, in March, a fire in Ban Mae Surin refugee camp killed 37 refugees.

Nineteen huts were razed to the ground and 31 demolished to prevent a fire from spreading at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border on Monday night, a camp official has confirmed to DVB.

According to Saw Tha Khe of the Mae La camp committee, no casualties have been reported.

“The fire broke out in Zone B at 9pm due to a candle,” he said.

Fire engines arrived 30 minutes later and the fire was under control around 10 pm, he said.

Nearly 300 people are now homeless and are taking shelter with relatives and friends in the camp, which is mainly made up of ethnic Karen refugees.

With thousands of wooden and bamboo huts situated in close proximity, Mae La is no stranger to fires. Blazes have caused fatalities and damage in April 2012 and December 2013.

Mae La refugee camp is the largest of the nine official refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border with nearly 40,000 residents.

UNHCR offices in Malaysia neglecting Pakistani Christian refugees’ cases

Karachi: March 24, 2014. (PCP) According to reports received by Pakistan Christian Post from Malaysia, the United Nation offices of Human Right and Refugees are providing priorities to cases of Muslims from Myanmar, Syria and from other Islamic countries but causing unnecessary delays in cases of Pakistani Christians who fled from Pakistan after rising violence and persecution against them. 

The report indicates that when Pakistani Christian reach Malaysia, the UNHCR giving them time of two years for first interview to register them as refugee and again two-three years for final interview while Muslims from Myanmar, Syria and other Arab states are given time of months for first interview.

The Malaysian police consider all refugees as un-registered and illegal until they not go through first of initial interview which complete UNHCR registration, so, considering Pakistani Christian as illegal in Malaysia, harass them and make their life miserable.

Dr. Nazir S Bhatti, President of Pakistan Christian Congress PCC has expressed grave concern on handling of cases of Pakistani Christian refugees by offices of UNHCR in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.

Nazir Bhatti said “PCC urges Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of UNO to direct UNHCR to adopt same standards to deal with cases of Muslims and Christian refuges in South and South Eastern countries”

PCC Chief also appealed to EU countries to accept Pakistani Christian refugees as they are awarding permanent residencies to Syrians and other Muslim states migrants.

Dr. Nazir Bhatti appealed to International Donor Agencies and NGO,s to step forward to help Pakistani Christian refugees stranded in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and in Hong Kong who are suffering with their women and children while waiting from years on decision on their cases with UNHCR without any support.


Miliband puts focus back on refugees

David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary and president of the International Rescue Committee, has urged international donors and investors to ensure refugees living in Thailand are not forgotten amid an increase in engagement with the Myanmar government.

Mr Miliband was speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on March 19 after a two-day visit to camps on the border. He said it was important that Myanmar people displaced in Thailand, some of whom left the country more than 30 years ago, are not overlooked. He added the choices refugees make about whether they return to Myanmar would “shape the country”.

“Amid all the change in Myanmar, Burma … this woman [in the camp] said to me, ‘Don’t forget about us.’ And that is a really important message to take away. It would be a double tragedy if the people displaced from Myanmar, Burma, who are now here, are forgotten,” he said.

His comments come at a time when funding is being cut to aid organisations working with Myanmar refugees in Thailand, which they say has affected their ability to provide services.

Mike Bruce, a spokesperson for The Border Consortium (TBC), said that in 2013 the consortium had to transition to a “needs-based rations distribution system, driven largely by cuts to funding”.

“These cuts necessitated the restructuring of refugees’ rations whereby the standard monthly rice ration was cut,” he said.

“While TBC was able to ensure that children and the most vulnerable households do not have their rations reduced, most households are having to cope with a reduction in their rations.”

There are currently about 120,000 refugees living on the border.

While observers have reported a “slow trickle” of refugees returning to Myanmar following recent political reforms, people are still arriving in the camps and Mr Miliband said the majority of refugees do not feel it is the right time to return.

He said “each and every one” of the people he met in the camps had expressed “uncertainty” about the future of the country and “to what extent minority rights would be protected”.

“Quite a number of refugees have been back to see how things are but the access to [basic services such as safe drinking water] are very, very challenging in that part of Myanmar,” Mr Miliband added.

Mr Miliband said he believed that humanitarian efforts were as important as political reform and new investment if Myanmar is to progress successfully. He said, “The advocacy I would make is that we need joint programming on both sides of the border.”

While Mr Miliband declined to comment on what the Myanmar government could do in terms of policies to improve the situation for returning refugees, Mr Bruce said there are many areas that need to be addressed.

“[T]here needs to be real progress on security and justice issues in the South East, issues regarding land ownership and seizures needs to be addressed, infrastructure need to be dramatically improved, and land mines need to be cleared,” he asid.

“There needs to be a durable, lasting peace process, and troop movements throughout the region needs to be reconciled. Ultimately, it is important to note that any framework for return emphasises that return is voluntary, and in conditions that ensure dignity and security.”

Mr Miliband said the focus should be on making choices as “open and effective” as they could be for displaced people when it comes to the possibility of voluntary return.