Pre­car­i­ous limbo awaits Ro­hingya in Malaysia

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY SATISH CHENEY

Malaysia is a bea­con for eth­nic Ro­hingya flee­ing op­pres­sion and vi­o­lence in Myan­mar, but count­less mi­grants like Mo­hammed Is­mail are still search­ing for the promised land years af­ter ar­riv­ing.

Is­mail is among tens of thou­sands of Ro­hingya Mus­lims who have risked their lives over the years to reach Malaysia, only to find a state­less limbo and a new kind of marginal­iza­tion.

“Ev­ery day, I re­gret com­ing to Malaysia but I had no choice,” said Is­mail, 40, who fled his home in Myan­mar in 1992 to es­cape be­ing forced by au­thor­i­ties into a la­bor camp.

Scrap­ing by in Malaysia on low­pay­ing con­struc­tion jobs, he has been ar­rested twice as an un­doc­u­mented mi­grant, de­ported once, and re­peat­edly shaken down by cor­rupt po­lice of­fi­cers — all com­mon Ro­hingya com­plaints.

The plight of the Ro­hingya has drawn in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion fol­low­ing the boat peo­ple cri­sis that erupted last month, in which thou­sands of im­pov­er­ished Ro­hingya and Bangladeshi mi­grants strug­gled des­per­ately to reach Southeast Asian coun­tries.

Malaysia and In­done­sia agreed to ac­cept them pending pos­si­ble repa­tri­a­tion or re­set­tle­ment to third coun­tries as refugees.

But Ro­hingya asy­lum-seek­ers and la­bor ac­tivists say most will likely face the same limbo en­dured by Is­mail.

Ro­hingya flock to Malaysia be­cause it is Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity and has a thriv­ing econ­omy with jobs in con­struc­tion, agri­cul­ture and man­u­fac­tur­ing that re­quire lit­tle skill.

But legal pro­tec­tions are few for the 45,000 Ro­hingya reg­is­tered as refugees with the U.N. in Malaysia, and par­tic­u­larly for the es­ti­mated tens of thou­sands who lack such sta­tus.

“There have been so many oc­ca­sions when po­lice will wait for us out­side the con­struc­tion sites and when we step out to buy food, they will stop and de­mand bribes from us,” said Is­mail.

Once, af­ter be­ing paid his monthly salary of US$136, cor­rupt po­lice of­fi­cers seized it all, he said.

Af­ter his first ar­rest in 2001, Is­mail said po­lice put him on a rick­ety boat with other Ro­hingya and Bangladeshis and sent it to Thai­land, where hu­man smug­glers charged them US$543 per head to take them back to Malaysia.

Malaysia has never signed the U.N.’s Refugee Con­ven­tion and is thus not obliged to pro­vide any so­cial ser­vices to Is­mail, his wife and baby daugh­ter, such as school­ing or health care.

Most Ro­hingya pin their hopes on gain­ing the cov­eted U.N. refugee card, which af­fords a glim­mer of pro­tec­tion from au­thor­i­ties.

But that can take years, fol­lowed by many more be­fore re­set­tle­ment to the United States, Australia or else­where can be gained — if ever.

Is­mail landed a refugee card in 2004, but a seven-year-old ap­pli­ca­tion for re­set­tle­ment over­seas has gone nowhere.

“My wife and I at least we know we won’t get killed in Malaysia and we are thank­ful for that. But my daugh­ter will not get a proper ed­u­ca­tion here,” he said.

The U.N calls the Ro­hingya one of the most per­se­cuted groups in the world.

Ro­hingya com­plain of sys­tem­atic mis­treat­ment by Myan­mar’s Bud­dhist­ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment, which re­fuses to even rec­og­nize them as cit­i­zens. Many have been killed in sec­tar­ian clashes with Bud­dhists in re­cent years.

De­spite this, Richard Towle, the U.N. refugee agency’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Malaysia, said “his­tor­i­cally the Ro­hingya have not been set­tled out of Malaysia in high num­bers.” He de­clined to spec­u­late why. But Aegile Fer­nan­dez of Malaysian mi­grant- rights group Te­na­ganita blamed West­ern “Is­lam­o­pho­bia.”

“With ris­ing Is­lam­o­pho­bia, most coun­tries are closing their doors to Mus­lim refugees,” she said.

There are, how­ever, fresh hopes that grow­ing aware­ness of the Ro­hingya plight could open doors over­seas.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has been out­spo­ken on Ro­hingya rights, rais­ing sug­ges­tions of in­creas­ing U.S. ac­cep­tance.

The U.S. State Depart­ment said that over the past five years Amer­ica had re­set­tled more than 2,600 Ro­hingya refugees, in­clud­ing more than 1,000 in the past eight months.

It pro­jected that up to 1,600 will be re­set­tled this year and up to 2,500 next year, the vast ma­jor­ity from Malaysia.

The U.N. refugee agency’s Malaysia of­fice said it does not pub­licly re­lease break­downs of re­set­tle­ment num­bers to var­i­ous coun­tries.

But Towle said the dif­fi­cul­ties in re­set­tling large num­bers means al­ter­na­tives need to be ex­plored in­clud­ing im­prov­ing the sta­tus of Ro­hingya al­ready in Malaysia to bet­ter their lives and pre­vent abuses.

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