We spent Saturday afternoon in an apartment complex housing urban poor, including refugees and labor migrants. The 10-story building, eerily reminiscent of the 1970s socialist architecture in my native Poland, is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Despite the presence of a cleaning crew sorting recyclables from the adjoining dumpster, garbage was strewn all over and anorexic looking cats were prowling around in search of something to eat. Across the street was a posh, gated and freshly painted condominium. The contrast between these two buildings—sunny yellow with a white trim and nondescript gray with stains that are probably to gross to imagine–was stark!
We came to interview Noor (a pseudonym), a Rohingya community leader, and his Malay wife, Zara (also a pseudonym). Noor presides over an informal association of about 1,500 Rohingya refugees, which he runs from his apartment. Unlike other community leaders we met who focus on providing direct services to their members, Noor focuses mainly on working with the media and the international community to keep the plight of the Rohingyas in the spotlight!
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma, are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Although, they have been living in the state of Arakan since the 8th century, the Rohingyas have been under extreme scrutiny by the Burmese government. They haven’t been recognized as citizens of The Union of Burma since the 1962 coup d’etat by General Ne Win. After decades of oppression and marginalization, the passing of the 1982 Citizenship Law deemed them officially stateless.
Human rights activist estimate that as many as 35,000 Rohingya fled Burma and neighboring Bangladesh by boat between June 2012 and May 2013, most of them hoping to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia. Locally, community leaders indicate that close to 28, 000 Rohingya are currently seeking political asylum status in Malaysia. Approximately, 13,500 Rohingyas have been registered with UNHCR and 14,500 have yet to be registered with UNHCR or with relevant organizations.
With the exception of the most vulnerable individuals—or cases as UNHCR refers to refugees!—the agency has not registered any new Rohingya since December 2005. Noor keeps a thick binder, in which he methodically records the names and contact information of members of his network documenting their presence in KL in the hopes that some day soon UNHCR might again focus on this group of stateless and unwanted people.
Similarly to other refugees, the Rohingya have very few rights in Malaysia. As a result, they are targeted by immigration authorities and Rela, a volunteer corps—akin to the American Minute Men–charged with arresting illegal migrants. In 2006, the Government of Malaysia began registering the Rohingya for IMM13 permits (or social visit passes), which would grant them temporary work status and thus some protection. Due to concerns by the government surrounding the registration process (accusations of corruption!), permit registration has since ended, and the Rohingya, like other Burmese refugees, continue to live without legal status.
Noor gets very agitated as he talks about the uncertain future of his fellow Rohingya and his own family. Although he is married to a Malay woman and has three citizen children—Malaysia being a Muslim country grants citizenship through the mother– his petition to become Malaysian citizen has been denied. Zara nudges Noor to show us the documentation he assembled to support his citizenship application. Noor produces another three-inches thick binder including every imaginable piece of paper the immigration authorities might need to make a decision. Everything, except a passport or travel document! Noor left Burma 22 years ago stateless in possession of no such documents!
His prospects for resettlement in the US are also bleak. Again, he gets very angry recalling that last year the United States resettled some 8,000 Burmese refugees from Malaysia; only three were Rohingya!
We wonder how Noor and Zara and their three small children—two boys ages six and four, and a four-months old baby girl—make ends meet. Zara used to work for a local NGO but with three children under the age of six, including a baby she breast feeds, she cannot afford to work eight hours a day. Her two sons are in a preschool, set up by a Malaysian NGO on the ground floor of the apartment complex, from 8 am till noon. Zara uses that time to help her brother who owns a small store. In exchange, he gives the family food and some money. Avie met the family some years back when they had only one child. They used to live in a much nicer apartment in a different neighborhood, recalls Zara. Looking around her current dwelling—very small, sparsely furnished but clean and well taken care of three rooms—she says: “We have no choice!” The good news is that the neighborhood is safe. The two boys are running around, playing with other kids in the narrow hallways and in the playground, all on their own.
Like many other Rohingya men, Noor has another wife and children in Burma. As a Muslim he is allowed to take a second wife provided he is able to support multiple wives and treat them equally. Noor has not seen his first wife in 22 years and he is certainly in no position to send remittances to his first family. It is his second wife’s family that support him!