Most of the Chin refugees in Seremban live in these flats in Lobak. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily
SEREMBAN, May 29 (Sin Chew Daily) -- While many are focusing on the Rohingyas in recent weeks, we might not be aware that there are also refugees from another ethnic group in Myanmar flocking into our country, and they have over the years assimilated themselves into the Malaysian society.
These are the Chins numbering about five million in Myanmar, 90% of whom Christians. Many of them have escaped from the government's systematic persecution since many years ago.
According to the 2006 "Chin Refugees in Malaysia" report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide Hong Kong, the Chins left their native country because of several factors, including the government ban on Christian activities, forcing them to embrace Buddhism, extortion by the military, etc.
Many Chin refugees still crave to return to their motherland but this will only be possible with changed administration.
Running from persecution
One of the larger Chin settlements in the country can be found in Lobak near Seremban, with about 500 ethnic Chin residents.
26-year-old Richard, a Chin refugee who has escaped to Malaysia for about five years now, told Sin Chew Daily he came to the country to seek asylum with the help of an agent and some relatives who had left Myanmar.
To escape persecution and suppression, he was forced to separate with his parents and four younger siblings on his boat journey to Malaysia, and was assisted by his relatives in Seremban.
Currently Richard is still awaiting the opportunity for UNHCR placement to a third country..
He said he was not sure since when the Chins had first come to Malaysia, adding that there were already Chins from his native village traveling to Malaysia as early as in 2008. They arrived here mostly through the assistance of their relatives already living in Malaysia.
"The first problem we came across after arriving here was to get a place to stay. Malaysians generally have bad perception towards us and many are unwilling to let their premises to us because we do not have fixed incomes, especially those without the official refugee certificates."
Not allowed to work
Richard obtained his refugee certificate first through registration with the Chin Refugee Committee in Malaysia before a refugee certificate was issued to him by the UNHCR. He said not all Chins from his village could get the refugee certificates.
He said some of the refugees without assistance from their relatives were unable to approach the refugee committee and were thus prone to deportation because they did not carry the refugee certificates.
He told Sin Chew Daily refugee certificates, which allow them to stay in Malaysia before they are sent to third countries, need to be renewed every three years.
These refugee certificates, nevertheless, do not grant them the permission to work legally in this country. As a result, many would work illegally in order to make a living.
Refugees normally work in restaurants and construction sites, earning generally lower salaries than locals or legal foreign workers.
Richard said they could earn from several hundred ringgit to RM1,000 every month in the absence of "interruption/"
The so-called "interruption" as Richard related includes raids by the enforcement units and extortion from local rascals.
"They know we are refugees and there is no one to help us even if we report to the police. So they just extort us openly. Many of my friends have been mugged and has surrendered their mobile phones, hard earned money and even refugee certificates."
Luckily not everyone is that bad. Richard said many Malaysians were actually very friendly and helpful.
Talking about life back in Myanmar, Richard said many Chin families made a living by farming, adding that many ethnic Chins with tertiary education backgrounds were also denied of good job prospects because of their ethnicity.
"Chins are a minority in Myanmar numbering about five million in 2013 or less than 10% of the country's total population. Even if they have good education, they won't get good jobs."
He said the Myanmar government would suppress the ethnic Chins in all kinds of ways, including searching their houses and taking away young men to work as coolies.
"We were forced to manually transporting weapons for them and those who dared to oppose them would be severely punished. Even if we were exhausted and thirsty, we couldn't stop to drink or would be punished."
Richard found the opportunity to escape and went into hiding with the help of fellow villagers. He then started to make arrangements to escape to another country. He finally managed to raise enough fund for the escape with the financial assistance from his relatives in the United States.
"Luckily my younger brother was not caught to become a coolie. Many family has no intention of coming over here (Malaysia). As a matter of fact, instead of waiting for placement to a third country, many Chins prefer to go home and be reunited with their families.
"But so long as the military regime is still in power, returning to Myanmar is a suicidal act.
The third countries that will take in refugees include the United States, Australia, Canada and Denmark, but these countries are now tightening their refugee policies.
"We used to have plenty of choices during the early years but now things begin to change. We can only go to a third country through UNHCR, and need to go through interviews and a series of eligibility assessments."
Changing destiny through education
Richard, who is the principal of a refugee school in Lobak, said his ambition was to become a pastor.
"There are several churches in Seremban that are treating us very kindly. They even get people to sponsor equipment and expenses to the school. We are really very thankful to them."
There are currently 110 students aged between 4 and 15 at the school where five ethnic Chin teachers teach English, mathematics, science and the Chin language.
"These students are the children of refugees running to Seremban. We now urgently need voluntary teachers to teach high school curriculum. Students reaching 16 years old should receive high school education but we simply lack qualified teachers for that.
"We have never thought of leaving our homeland for good, and the Chin language will be useful when we get back to our country one day. We must never forget our own language.
"We hope to change our destiny through education."