Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.
It is dark, cold and stifling in the fishing boat. Thida shifts his seating position to relieve the pressure on his behind from sitting with no adequate back support for too long. They’ve been in the sea for 3 days. He knows this because he has been observing and keeping count of the sunsets and sunrises since they left the shores of Myanmar. Thida Ye, a 30-year-old man, is one of the 700,000 Myanmar refugees fleeding the country out of fear of prosecution by the government. They are hoping to find salvation in a nearby country – Malaysia.
Thida will soon discover that the life that is waiting for him in Malaysia is nearly as tragic the one he left behind. Earlier this year, Malaysia’s Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein disclosed in a parliamentary debate that Malaysia had caned 29,759 foreigners between 2005 and 2010 for immigration offences alone. Stories of abuse and torture among refugees by Malaysian authorities are what Thida will be hearing from his comrades once he steps foot on this country.
As I spoke to him in his home, Thida reveals that Myanmar refugees are facing wretched existence in Malaysia. Not only are they living in fear of abuse and extortion from Malaysian authorities, they have also had to deal with stigmatisation from the local community.
“Once, my brother and I were walking to the nearby market when a local man started shouting at us. He knew we were refugees. He was barking foul words at us calling us ‘dog’, and ‘filthy’. He accused us of spreading diseases in this country,” Thida recounts his experience and shakes his head in disbelief.
He believes that this is a result of the Malaysian government’s refusal to recognise refugees in the country. Malaysia is not one of the signatory to the 1951 UN Geneva Convention, which protects the fundamental rights of refugees. Because of this, refugees are considered ‘illegal’ with no distinction between them and undocumented economic immigrants.
“My brother and I, we’ve been detained and released for countless of times. We have become ‘experts’ at dealing with this. That is why I save up on cash from whatever work I can find. I once paid an immigration officer RM5,000 (£1,000) for the release of my brother from detention. I wish I could say that the other detainees got their release too but that is exactly what it is – wishful thinking,” he said.
According to Thida, detainees are often abused or extorted in exchange of basic items like food, hygiene products and – like in the case of his brother – freedom. But even the freedom that these refugees attained, he says, are sometimes short-lived or even worse, non-existent.
“They treat as if we are not humans. After all, we are virtually non-existent because we don’t have proper documentations. We do not have passports as our own country refuse to accept us. On the other hand, this country (Malaysia) refuses to acknowledge our status as refugees. We are like ghosts,” Thida remarks frustratingly.
Security, food, hygiene and medical help are among the needs Myanmar refugees lack access to in this country. Without an ID, Thida and his fellow community member find it impossible to hold a job. Even when jobs are offered, employers often pay them pittance because they know that they will not be penalised for it.
“Many of us walk in the streets in fear. Fear that an authority officer will catch us and threaten to deport us back to our country. Fear that a local will discover our illegal status and treat us like we are not human beings. They think we are here by choice. They think that we are criminals. They even think that we are infested with diseases to an extent where some don’t even want to come near us.
“But what most people don’t know is that we don’t have a choice. We left our country because we were being discriminated by our own government and most of the time refugees are people who escape execution or life-term imprisonment.
“Going back to our own country is not a viable choice. On the other hand, we cannot leave this country safely because we don’t have any passport or legal documentation. As a result, we are like people with no identity. What is scary is that, an identity-less man is a man stripped off of his basic rights. These include the right to earning to one’s own living, protection and many more.”
Thida stresses again that the problem lies in the refusal of the Malaysian government in recognising the status of refugees.
“There are more than a million refugees residing in this country and they are all open to discrimination, abuses, extortions and other heinous treatment!”
“We just want to feel safe. It is unfair to treat or judge us based on our status. We are not here by choice. Being refugees, we are victims of discrimination in our own country. Given that fact, we only ask that we are treated like other normal people. We did not come here to be criminals or spread diseases. It is the conditions that induces some to conduct crimes but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all refugees are criminals.”
Thida adds that a safety ward is what they want the most. “Imagine walking on the street with fear that anyone can just take you away and do whatever they want with you. You are practically non-existent because there are no records or files of you. You are being denied to have an identity.”
Thida cites some cases where Myanmarese women refugees are raped and abused by officials.
“We have no where and no one to go to. By not recognising our status, we are being denied to proper protection.”
“Malaysia and Malaysians need to know and realize that bottom-line, refugees are human beings too that were denied their rights in their own country. As a developing country, it is unfair to deny ad judge refugees their basic right to freedom and protection.