By SHAILA KOSHY and RASHVINJEET S.BEDI
MUHAMMAD Kamal* wakes up each day with a heavy heart. The Rohingya refugee lives from day to day, hoping someone will give him a job so he can feed his young family.
He is lucky if he can earn RM800 a month doing odd jobs like construction work.
The dark circles beneath his eyes make Kamal look much older than his 33 years. A victim of forced labour in Myanmar, Kamal escaped to Malaysia in 1995.
»It is better here. It is a hand-tomouth life but we can work« TUAL KHAU LIAN
Despite being a registered refugee, Kamal, who has two children aged two and six, says he has been detained several times, the longest being a month in the Lenggeng Immigration detention facility.
Last year, in hope of a better life, Kamal considered going to Australia by boat. An agent told him the journey would cost RM15,000, an amount he is unable to raise.
“I don't know how long I'd have to wait to be resettled. I just want to live like a normal human being,” he sighs.
For the human smugglers, transporting desperate refugees like Kamal is a lucrative trade, with some asking as much as RM33,000 to RM45,000 per refugee.
This illegal trade has drawn Australia's concern because Malaysia and Indonesia are said to be transit points. To stem the smugglers' trade, Australia is hoping to seal a proposed agreement to send 800 asylum seekers who have been detained by their authorities to Malaysia in return for accepting 4,000 refugees in Malaysia for resettlement over a period of four years.
In Malaysia, the refugees are spread nationwide but most are concentrated in the Klang Valley.
Unlike decades ago, refugees can now move around freely with the local community. But this freedom has some repercussions.
Ismael*, 31, who earns about RM800 a month as a rubbish collector, claims he has had to pay bribes to avoid detention. Sometimes, his employer pays the amount and docks it from his pay, he says.
“I have pleaded with the police on how hard it is to survive but to no avail. One policeman even told me he needs to pay taxes, whereas I don't have to,” the father-of-three claims.
However, treatment of refugees has improved over the last year although there are still instances of abuse, says Shan Refugee Organisation chairman Sai Kham Noom.
He relates that his taxi was stopped by a policeman last year but he was let off when he showed him his refugee status card from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and also gave his call card.
When the policeman said he could go, Sai drove off, forgetting to take his UN card. The next day, he says, he received a call from the policeman who told him to take his card back.
For the refugees, a major problem is getting a job. They can only take on odd jobs, and the probability of them being exploited is high.
Sai says it is not easy to find work and most refugees earn about RM700 to RM800 monthly although he knows of a few who earn more as cooks and mechanics.
“Malaysia is still much better than Burma.”
Sai, who holds a degree in physics, says he ran away from Myanmar after he was accused of being a spy.
Chin Refugee Committee (CRC) coordinator, Henry Pin Maunt Shwe, says some employers are scared to hire refugees because of potential problems with the Immigration authorities.
He says a plantation worker could earn about RM700 monthly but there are instances when employers refused to pay their workers.
Tual Khau Lian, 55, was a farmer in Myanmar before he came to Malaysia in 2004.
“We are Chin people. Soldiers look down on us. We can't move freely, our children can't go to school and many are kidnapped by the junta and sent to work in labour camps.
“It is better here. It is a hand-to-mouth life but we can work. And the people here, such as those in the hospitals, don't look down on us. Thank you very much Malaysia,” he says.
Since coming here, Tual has worked in a tofu factory, restaurant and the construction sector. But it hasn't been a bed of roses for him.
He claims that in December 2006, he was picked up by cops who asked him for money. When he refused to pay, they took him to the police station and despite showing his UN card, no one from UNHCR came to help him, he relates. His guess is they were not told.
“My court case kept being postponed, so I was in Sg Buloh prison until 2008,” he says with a wry smile, adding that he picked up Bahasa Malaysia from the Malay inmates.
Tual suffered a mild stroke after his release and recuperated at a home in Batu Arang. He hasn't been able to work full-time since then but helps out with funeral services at the Zomi Association of Malaysia.
His two sons, aged 20 and 15, came to Malaysia in 2010. His elder son works in a restaurant and supports all of them on his meagre pay while the younger one is studying.
Tual discloses that he and his sons have had their medical examination and adds brightly: “We are on our way to the United States! Once there, I hope my wife and daughter can join us.”
Housewife Vung Lam Dim, 33, lives in a tiny flat with her two-year-old daughter Rebecca. Her husband works as a lorry driver in the jungle.
“He comes home Saturday night and leaves Sunday. He comes back Monday night to attend Bible class (at the Myanmar Church which meets at the Life Harvest Assembly in Cheras) because he wants to help in the church.”
Lam Dim and her family were accepted by Australia a few years ago but after her husband's medical examination showed he had tuberculosis, they were rejected.
Although all three have a UN card, they are stuck here until her husband passes the next medical examination. In the meantime, she steers clear of the authorities.
*Not their real names
Source: The Star, Malaysia