Indonesia’s Rohingya Refugees to Resettle to the U.S. or Remain?

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In an archipelago with more islands than refugees, Indonesia is looking at ways to provide education, health and housing to its 13,800 registered refugees and asylum seekers. But advocates argue accessing livelihoods is the biggest unmet need.

MEDAN, Indonesia – Muhammad Rofiq uses his mobile phone to log into his resettlement case file online, outside of the shelter in Medan where he’s lived since 2016.

A status update told him he should expect to leave Indonesia for the U.S. this month.

“I will finally go to America,” said Rofiq, a Rohingya refugee among the 1,807 rescued by fishermen off the coast of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, in 2015.

Rofiq, 24, is one of an unspecified number of Rohingya refugees selected for resettlement to the U.S. under an agreement made with Indonesia during the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis.

Indonesia committed to host the Rohingya for one year at refugee shelters set up and run by the International Organization for Migration. Almost three years later and many remain in Indonesia uncertain what will come next.

Rofiq was expecting to leave Indonesia last August when President Trump’s 120-day refugee ban cancelled his plan. He’s hoping restrictive policies won’t affect his upcoming departure.

The U.S. government cut its quota for resettlement with the UN Refugee Agency by half this fiscal year. Experts argue the U.S. may not even reach this 45,000 limit by September.

This may delay many Rohingya in Medan waiting to leave Indonesia for the U.S.

“Some have been in the resettlement pipeline, but now that’s all been thrown out by these restrictive policies governments are implementing,” said Thomas Vargas, UNHCR Indonesia Representative.

In Medan and Makassar – two cities sheltering the majority of the 800 Rohingya refugees in Indonesia – some are waiting for final approval to resettle in the U.S. while the majority must remain indefinitely.

The IOM runs 18 refugee shelters in Medan and 12 in Makassar, housing the majority of Rohingyas in Indonesia.

Last February, all refugees in Indonesia were informed by the UNHCR that resettlement is no longer an option. Indonesia hosts 13,800 registered refugees and asylum seekers.

“Resettlement is not a catch all solution. It’s really, especially these days, a band-aid approach to helping refugees,” Vargas said. “Unfortunately, it’s become even more difficult with this kind of situation and environment that we’ve got globally.”

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Muhammad Rofiq outside of the refugee shelter he’s called home since 2016

Last February, Rofiq confirms 20 Rohingyas from his refugee shelter in Medan left for the U.S. Twenty-nine there are expecting to leave in the coming weeks.

“It makes me sad when I think how many have already left and I’m still here,” Rofiq said.

Two Rohingya men who had arrived in Indonesia before 2015 cried when they received the news from the UNHCR that they must remain in Indonesia with no hope of being resettled to another country.

They have spent years living at refugee shelters in Medan with their families but were not considered for resettlement to the U.S. because both left temporarily to find work in Malaysia.

Refugees in Makassar protested outside of the UNHCR office when they received the news that those not already selected for resettlement would have to remain indefinitely.

Indonesia does not allow permanent residency for refugees and asylum seekers. Even refugees who’ve married Indonesians and have had children are still not allowed to remain, officially.

In Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, many refugees who were living independently, without assistance, are now sleeping outside of an immigration detention centre hoping to be allowed inside.

Indonesia’s president decreed in 2017 that more refugee shelters must be set up to accommodate them. This has caused confusion in the refugee community with many turning up at immigration detention centres hoping to be processed and allocated housing.

The International Concern Group for the Rohingya states Indonesia must come up with a more permanent solution for its 13,800 refugees.

Adli Abdullah is the secretary at The International Concern Group for the Rohingya. He lives and teaches in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where most of the Rohingya arrived by boat prior to May 2015.

He wants to see Indonesia adopt a different approach for its refugees and asylum seekers, by giving them a chance to create livelihood opportunities.

“I think the Indonesian government can learn from Malaysia,” said Abdullah. “They are more human in the way they treat [the] Rohingya.”

Both Indonesia and Malaysia are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. Malaysia hosts 152,170 registered refugees and asylum seekers. It is illegal for refugees to work in Malaysia but many are able to eke out an existence.

In Indonesia, the IOM provides an allowance for refugees living at its shelters. It also provides vocational training. Refugee children are even allowed to enroll at government-run schools in Indonesia, something Malaysia does not allow.

But many refugee families in Indonesia are unable to provide transportation fees for their children to attend local schools.

Rofiq has been teaching math and English to Rohingyas living at his shelter in Medan. This has kept him occupied during the days, while at nights he reviews his American cultural orientation booklet.

“I read it every night,” he said. “I know President Trump doesn’t like refugees.”

In a phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump said: “I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad.”

President Trump was referring to a 2016 pledge Barack Obama had made to accept vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers among the 1,200 held at Australia’s offshore detention facilities – many of them were intercepted leaving Indonesia.

The number of refugees being resettled from Indonesia has been shrinking over the last few years as the global refugee crisis has grown. According to the UN, there are now 65 million people displaced worldwide. Over 20 million are refugees.

Less than one percent of them are resettled every year.

A date has now been set for Rofiq and he’s optimistic he’ll be leaving for the U.S. in the coming weeks.

“I [received] my ticket,” Rofiq said. “I am lucky. I will have freedom.”

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Refugees in Indonesia told assimilate but not settle

Jakarta Immigration Detention Centre Getty Images

An inside view of Immigration Detention House in west Jakarta, Indonesia, on December 19, 2017; with 445 people from various countries, the majority from Nigeria, it was was over-capacity. Erric Permana/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Fatema Barbari tears up as she recounts how police forced her family and 50 other refugees to flee a makeshift camp outside the immigration detention center in Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital.

“They ordered us to leave at night,” Barbari, 39, said as she looked around at her husband and two children at a bus station in west Jakarta. “But we have nowhere to go.”

Barbari’s 12-year-old daughter, Zahra Jaffari, translates her words into English from Dari, one of the languages of her native Afghanistan. The Jaffaris are ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan and have been living in Indonesia since 2015.

For the past two years, the family was receiving financial assistance for housing from one of the U.N. refugee agency’s partners on the ground. But since this ended last week, they have been homeless.

“We really like being in Indonesia. We feel safe here,” Barbari said. “But it’s not safe to sleep on the street.”

There are 9,000 refugees and 5,300 asylum seekers in Indonesia, according to UNHCR, and more than half are from Afghanistan. One-third of the total 14,300 are living independently without any assistance.

The Jakarta Immigration Detention Center has a maximum capacity of 120 but it currently houses a total of 224 asylum seekers and refugees. It is meant to hold only foreign nationals who have violated visa regulations or who are to be deported. But now worried families, like the Jaffaris, are trying to get in. They believe that the only way to be considered for a place to live with international or government assistance is to be processed at a detention center.

The confusion is understandable. As resettlement out of Indonesia to other countries, such as Australia, dwindles, refugees already in Indonesia are in an awkward limbo. The UNHCR began informing refugees that resettlement to a third country is becoming less likely, and that they must try their best to assimilate into Indonesian society. But Indonesian officials insist permanent residency is not an option. Indonesia views itself only as a transit country for refugees, not a final destination.

Barbari and her husband, Khadan Ali Jaffari, 50, and three of their four children – Murtaza Jaffari, 19, Mohammed Hussain, 10, and Zahra Jaffari, 12 – have all been sleeping outside under an awning to protect them from rain for nearly a week. Their eldest son, Mustafa Jaffari, 21, lives in Brisbane, Australia, having migrated there in 2013. But a change in Australia’s humanitarian intake program in 2014 makes refugees in Indonesia ineligible for resettlement.

“We miss him so much. We just want to join him in Australia, but we’ve been told we will not be able to go there,” Barbari said.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention outlining the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. The best the country provides is the right to stay temporarily and register with the UNHCR until resettlement can be processed.

In 2017, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, signed a decree recognizing the status of asylum seekers and refugees, and the country will no longer label them as illegal immigrants.

The presidential decree also set forth a policy to allow for more local refugee shelters to be set up. But many, like the Jaffaris, are forced to sleep on the streets until they can be placed inside detention centers, hoping that accommodation will soon be made available.

Refugees vie for a spot in one of the 42 community housing facilities run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These shelters are seen as an alternative to refugee detention.

“With UNHCR telling most refugees that they may not be resettled, it has created panic in the community. People have started to think about what they should do next,” said Mohammad Baquir, a 19-year-old Afghan refugee who runs a school for refugees in Jakarta.

“Some have gone to the detention center. They’re outside waiting to get in. They think they will not able to survive here on their own over the next few years,” Baquir added.

The Jaffaris would like to stay in Indonesia, closer to their son in Australia. Both of their youngest children were attending local schools and integrating well by learning bahasa Indonesia, the official language.

Access to education is very limited for refugee children, so the Jaffaris see themselves as lucky to have been given an opportunity. But the children no longer attend class because of the family’s uncertain situation. There are 11 informal refugee schools in Indonesia. Baquir’s HELP for Refugees in Jakarta is providing Indonesian language lessons to make assimilation easier.

“There’s a huge need for education in the [refugee] community,” Baquir said. “We are facing so many limitations. We are not allowed to get formal education. We are not allowed to work or involve ourselves in any kind of activity where we could earn income.”

The UNHCR, along with its partner organizations, does provide financial assistance to 400 of the most vulnerable refugees, but limited funds mean many more who are in need are left out.

“In Indonesia, we feel like we can make a life here. But we don’t have any money,” Barbari said.

If asylum seekers and refugees are to assimilate into Indonesian society rather than being forced to return to their home countries, observers say Indonesia must find solutions.

“We have seen many refugees become quite vulnerable. Many have lost their home and they have nobody to help them,” said Lars Stenger, advocacy and information officer at Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia.

The UNHCR recognizes that most Afghan refugees come from minority groups. If they were to be sent back to Afghanistan they might suffer persecution and human rights violations. This means it would be too dangerous for the Jaffaris ever to return. Compared to regional neighbors Malaysia and Thailand, the relatively small number of refugees in Indonesia – and the president’s attention on the issue – makes it a perfect place to look at ways to solve their predicament.

Indonesia’s 260 million people make it the world’s fourth most populous nation and its social safety net prioritizes the estimated 28 million Indonesians living below the poverty line, with education and housing a priority.

“Indonesia has all the ingredients to be a successful model of managing and supporting asylum seekers and refugees,” Stenger said. “But in the long run, there has to be some access to livelihoods.”

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Malaysia’s Rohingya Refugee Women’s Theatre Company

Rohingya Theatre Group at Masakini studio 2

The Rohingya Women’s Theatre Company (from L-R) Fatma Husen, 23, Rashida Rafik, 21, and Syedah Husen, 21.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Inside a YMCA gymnasium, an actress takes the stage and the audience goes quiet. Members of Malaysia’s state security forces are in attendance.

The scene set is a family living room. An actress mimes as if to clean. There’s nothing subversive in this scene.

A male actor steps on stage looking upset. He’s playing the woman’s husband. Not a word is spoken between the two until he attempts to hit her. True to the form, the actress falls to the floor clutching her face.

“I’m proof that Rohingya can act,” said the actress Rashida Rafik. “I may not be able to do it on television but I can do it.”

Rafik, 21, is a mother of three. She was married at the age of 13 and pregnant months later. Early childhood marriage is common among the Rohingya.

The United Nations predicts 140 million girls will become child brides between 2011 and 2020. This is more than 14 million girls per year. Fifty of the 140 million are girls under the age of 15.

UNHCR Malaysia estimates there are 230 child brides in the country’s refugee community.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention despite the fact that there are 152,170 registered refugees with estimates of anywhere from 40 to 140,000 unregistered in the country.

Nazim Bashir is community outreach coordinator at Asylum Access Malaysia. He said early childhood marriage and sexual violence in the refugee community is a concern for everyone.

Asylum Access Malaysia teamed up with New York City’s Bond Street Theatre to teach a group from the Rohingya Women’s Development Network about using theatre to raise awareness on refugee women and girls’ issues.

Bond Street Theatre has projects in 40 countries worldwide. The Rohingya Women’s Theatre Company was born in late 2017 with the assistance of Masakini Theatre in Kuala Lumpur.

Rafik considers herself one of the lucky few allowed to attend a charity school. Rohingya, and other refugees, are barred from attending government-run schools in Malaysia.

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Rafik receives advice from Sabera Shaik, founder of Malaysia’s Masakini Theatre Company.

Rafik’s education ended when she got pregnant at 14. UNHCR Malaysia supports 128 informal refugee schools, providing a basic primary level education.

Asylum Access Malaysia states most of these schools are underfunded and under-resourced. They rely solely on volunteer teachers and staff, most from the refugee community itself.

According to the UNHCR, only 50 per cent of refugee children worldwide are enrolled in primary school. Twenty two per cent are in secondary school, while only one per cent is enrolled in tertiary, post-secondary, education.

UNHCR Malaysia’s Education Unit stated in 2016 that among Rohingya school age children in Malaysia, only 39 per cent are receiving primary level instruction. No other level exists for them.

“I will never allow my daughter to be married young,” said Rafik. “I want my kids to have a bright future; to have their human rights and complete their education. Once they complete their education hopefully they can be better people.”

Back at the YMCA, the actor and Rafik yell at each other in Bahasa Malaysia, a language she and over 31 million others speak in this country. Rafiq was raised in Kuala Lumpur and calls herself Malaysian.

The first scene comes to an end. Rafik receives a round of applause. Enter Syedah Husen, 21, another Rohingya actress and former child bride.

Husen was married at 15. Her family escaped Myanmar and came to Malaysia in 2001. But neither she nor her older sister was allowed to attend primary school.

“I don’t want my children to be like me, I got married very young. I have no brains because I never went to school. I want my daughter to study until she’s older and she can choose what she wants to do,” Husen said.

The only way to stop early childhood marriage and early childbirth in Malaysia’s Rohingya refugee community is to increase girls’ access to education. These issues extend beyond Malaysia and into Myanmar and Bangladesh, where the majority of Rohingya live.

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The Rohingya refugee actresses share a moment after the production.

The Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives provided assistance to the Rohingya Women’s Development Network to establish the Rohinyga Women’s Theatre Company.

The Canadian High Commission in Malaysia states the funds are an effort to increase women and girls’ access to information and decrease dependency on humanitarian assistance.

“People in Myanmar are not educated. And in Malaysia you can only get a basic education,” said Sharifah Husain, founder of Malaysia’s Rohingya Women’s Development Network.

“As humans we have human rights. I want our people to know what we deserve. I want our people to know our rights. I want our people to stand up for these rights.”

Husain, 24, was born in Myanmar. Her family fled 20 years ago to Kuala Lumpur after an attack on her village. Husain has spent the last decade of her life educating women and children in Malaysia’s Rohingya refugee community.

“We are facing all these issues because we’re not recognized as refugees here,” Husain said. “We don’t have any basic rights. We can’t go to school. We don’t have proper access to medical care. We can’t do anything here until they recognize us.”

Back on stage, Husen and her actor husband sit beside each other, as if at a dinner table. They begin to argue and the crowd is amused.

“It’s a good way to educate them. Through theatre they can really understand,” Husen said. “When I’m at home I practice in the mirror and my daughter mimics me.”

The play comes to an end. There’s a standing ovation as the actors take a bow. A narrator shares information on where refugee women and girls can go to seek help in the community.

A 15-year-old Rohingya mother in the crowd, with a baby on her lap, asks not to be named. Malaysia’s state security officers stand up to leave.

“I didn’t know we could act. I’ve never seen this kind of performance. My friends are doing a good job. This is a good thing,” said the 15-year-old mother.

Off stage both Rafik and Husen are treated like celebrities as family and friends line up to request photographs with them.

“It’s very effective when our community is seeing the violence that is happening. They think this is our culture. This is what we’ve been doing since being born and this is not a problem,” said Sharifah Husain.

“With theatre we make them see what the reality is. They open their eyes. They’re willing to accept. You entertain the people and at the same time you’re educating them,” Husain added.

In Myanmar, Rohingya women have survived unimaginable violence and now live in Bangladesh refugee camps receiving humanitarian assistance. In Malaysia, Rohinyga refugee women refuse to be victimized any longer and are now educating each other on their options.

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Malaysia: A Refugee Conundrum

British Ceremonial Arts

Heidy Quah, 23, receives the Queen’s Young Leaders Award in 2017 (British Ceremonial Arts)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – “People always ask me, why are you helping refugees when there are people, here at home, who need help?

“This is home for refugees”, said Heidy Quah, recipient of the 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work co-founding Malaysia’s Refuge for the Refugees.

Quah, aged 23 years, founded the Kuala Lumpur-based educational organisation with a friend in secondary school after hearing that the informal refugee school they were teaching English at would no longer be able to provide education to its students due to a lack of funding.

“These kids were being robbed of their only access to education”, Quah said. “That’s how Refuge for Refugees started as a project to tackle the issues of one school. But as we continued, we realised Malaysians weren’t aware of the plight of refugees.”

Refugees without the status

Many Malaysians are not able to discern the difference between refugees and illegal migrant workers. This is because the government does not make this distinction.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 amended protocol. It does not recognise the rights of refugees under international law.

The number of unregistered refugees varies widely according to reports. Asylum Access Malaysia, a refugee rights organisation, states there can be anywhere from 40 000 to 140 000 unregistered refugees in the country. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered 152 170 refugees in Malaysia.

According to Asylum Access Malaysia, roughly 90% of Malaysia’s refugee population is Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group from western Myanmar—formerly known as Burma—that has been deprived of citizenship since its independence in 1948.

In Malaysia, there is no way to determine if more Rohingya are arriving to date. Over the past 5 years human traffickers and smugglers have brought many Rohingya and other refugees by boat from Myanmar or Bangladesh towards Malaysia.

It is unknown how many have died at sea or are being held in Malaysian immigration detention centres, where conditions have been described by the Malaysian national human rights commission as “torture-like”.

UNHCR found that at least 24 refugees and asylum seekers died inside these detention centres from 2015 to 2017, The Guardian reported in May, 2017. A 2014 Al Jazeera investigation exposed that Malaysia detained children with their parents within these detention centres, in disagreement with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2015, the so-called boat crisis gripped Malaysia. The government, alongside Thailand and Indonesia, sealed its borders temporarily, effectively blocking access to an estimated 6000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi stranded on boats after being abandoned at sea by smugglers.

The Malaysian Government later allowed the refugees to enter the country after a public outcry.

Deepa Nambiar, director of Asylum Access Malaysia, says many in Malaysia are expecting Rohingya refugees fleeing the squalid camps of Myanmar and Bangladesh to reach the country.

An estimated 650 000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar’s alleged army clearance operations to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Nambiar says an influx of displaced people can be expected this year when strong winds on the Andaman sea become less of an obstacle.

Access to education and health

The biggest challenge for refugees is accessing education, health care, and livelihoods. Most do not have any form of documentation. They often face harassment from authorities and must pay bribes to police for minor infractions such as not carrying proper identification or visas.

Registration with UNHCR gives refugees access to an UNHCR card. For most refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, this is their only form of identification.

With this card, children can receive an education. The UNHCR in Malaysia runs what it calls a “parallel school system”, supporting 128 informal refugee schools teaching at a basic primary level. But it is under-resourced and underfunded, relying on donations and volunteers, mostly from faith-based organisations or charities.

“The quality of education is low. Syllabuses are incredibly inconsistent. It’s very community-based,” said Nambiar.

The UNHCR card also allows refugees to receive 50% off medical bills in Malaysia.

A UNHCR card for a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee in Malaysia

The UNHCR card of a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee from Myanmar

But they are charged the rate that is paid by non-nationals at hospitals; as such, out-of-pocket expenses remain prohibitive for most refugees. Charitable organisations such as the International Catholic Migration Commission and Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation offer free health-care service to refugees but often operate within a legal grey area.

The 2014 Al Jazeera investigation also uncovered UNHCR Malaysia staff translators selling fake refugee cards on the black market. This led to an internal investigation.

The UNHCR Malaysia office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Calling Malaysia a home

A refugee repatriation deal struck between Bangladesh and Myanmar, once implemented, will mean Rohingya refugees will be sent back to Rakhine State, with no assurances from either the UN or Myanmar’s army that its alleged crackdown against militants and civilians will cease.

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia fear the country might want to do the same in the future.

Malaysia could be an attractive destination for Rohingya. Although the country does not offer a solution to their statelessness, Malaysian refugees are not subjected to violent persecution by the state. There’s an established Rohingya community and refugee schools are free for children. Whereas Malaysia is officially secular, Islam is its official religion.

Many Rohingya find informal work in Malaysia, in what is called by Nambiar the three D jobs: dirty, demeaning, and dangerous. They can find work as cleaners, on construction sites and plantations, or in factories.

“Exploitation within the workforce is very high. There’s no security”, said Nambiar. Knowing there are no legal implications or recourse for these actions, Malaysian employers can refuse payment to refugees or terminate their employment without notice or severance.

A pilot project started by the Malaysian Government and supported by the UNHCR has allowed 300 Rohingya refugees to begin work in the plantation sector. Implementing this project on a wider scale in other sectors could one day provide refugees with official work permits, which could help address Rohingya families’ needs for identification.

“It does feel there is some room opening up for formal employment in Malaysia. It remains to be seen how it is implemented”, said Nambiar.

In 2017, UNHCR Malaysia announced a 5-year community-based protection strategy to “increase its engagement with refugee communities and diverse stakeholders, including those from Kuala Lumpur who have had limited access with UNHCR in the past, to effectively address vulnerabilities and safeguard protection space for refugees”.

“The next 5-year plan is to see the landscape of refugees change in Malaysia, where we stop depending on UNHCR”, Quah said. “We [will] start empowering civil society organisations on the ground to be self-sustainable.”

“I think there’s a lot of attention that can be had about Rohingya in Malaysia. It’s a developing country and so [people say] ‘Rohingya here are fine’, but they really aren’t”, Nambiar said. “But more than in many other countries, Rohingya here are seen with a very sympathetic lens.”

For Quah, the first step to changing the perception of refugees in Malaysia is to educate them and make them feel that this is home.

Refuge for the Refugees now supports ten informal schools in Malaysia. Over the past 5 years, it has helped to educate 1875 refugee children in Malaysia and has expanded into Myanmar.

Because secondary education is not an option for most refugee youth after finishing primary classes, Refuge for the Refugees is looking to begin vocational skills training, starting with baking classes, so they can learn new skills and earn income. A welfare fund will be set up by UNHCR to assist groups helping refugees, according to Quah.

This was achieved in a country where refugees are still not allowed to officially work or study. Quah says that most of these students now contribute to the economy and public life in Malaysia. She now wants her country to recognise them.

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Malaysia’s Rohingya Network – CBC The World this Weekend

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The Rohingya community in Malaysia is trying to help fellow Rohingya who’ve recently fled their homes in Myanmar to live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya in Malaysia view themselves as the lucky ones. They’re viewed as illegal migrants, not refugees, but they’re essentially allowed to contribute to society and earn an income — illegally.

This allows them — especially women — to send aid to women and children now living in Bangladesh’s camps. This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, December 2, 2017.

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One Rohingya’s struggle to empower women in Malaysia

Sharifah Husain is the founder of Rohingya Women's Development Network in Malaysia

Sharifah Husain has spent the last decade educating her community’s most vulnerable women and children

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Tucked away upstairs at a shopping plaza in this city’s north end is a small storefront turned classroom for dozens of Rohinyga women and children.

The sound of these women reciting English phrases, laughing and the occasional cries of kids can be heard in the stairwell.

Its founder, Sharifah Husain, 24, said she wanted to do something to help women and children in her community, who are not allowed to work or study in Malaysia.

“I noticed we didn’t have a Rohingya women’s organisation that was standing up for women – to be the voice of women,” Husain said.

Husain comes from Buthidaung village in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state. Her father fled to Malaysia when she was five-years old, fearing for his life. Husain was left behind with her mother and two younger siblings.

The village was attacked soon afterward, so Husain’s mother took them to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar – then known as Burma.

Her recollection of the traumatic moment when a local mob attacked her village is hazy. It took place almost 20 years ago.

But it mirrors the accounts of Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh, who’ve recently fled the Myanmar’s army clearance operations and local Buddhist mobs.

“My mother was arrested in Yangon and sentenced to prison for not having official [identification or travel] documents,” Husain recounted. “This left me in charge.”

Husain can’t remember how long she spent in Yangon, but she said she was separated from her siblings and sent north to Mandalay and forced into servitude.

She spoke to her father in Malaysia, over the phone, and he agreed to pay human traffickers to bring Husain and her siblings to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city. All three, including Husain, were smuggled by land, into Thailand and Malaysia.

At that time the Southeast Asia trafficking route wasn’t as defined as it is today. Human trafficking groups in Bangladesh and Thailand now make a lot of money off of poor, desperate refugees fleeing war and violence in Myanmar.

Today, the concern faced by the Malaysia government is if it recognises its refugees then that could send a signal to more to make the perilous journey, now taken by sea from Myanmar and Bangladesh to sanctuary in Malaysia, where they don’t face violent persecution.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, states there are 152,170 registered refugees in Malaysia. The majority are Rohingya, displaced from their homes in Myanmar, like Husain.

But the amount of unregistered refugees varies widely from 40,000 to 140,000, according to Asylum Access Malaysia.

“The big question is – when are the boats going to come? There’s no indication they will now, but there’s definitely a high possibility that they will. And once new groups arrive, that complicates [the] situation,” said Deepa Nambiar, Asylum Access Malaysia director.

UNHCR runs what it calls a “parallel school system” for refugees in Malaysia, allowing children to access basic, primary-level education.

Refugee groups and local faith-based organisations fund these schools, staffed by volunteers. One-hundred and twenty-eight informal refugee schools in Malaysia access funding from the UN. It provides education to 7,154 children, according to UNHCR.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Office states 16,809 Rohingya refugee children are registered with UNHCR. This means about 10,000, or more, refugee children in Malaysia are unable to access any form of education.

A dozen or so more informal refugee schools exist but rely solely on donations and are understaffed, said Asylum Access.

“To live in Malaysia, yes you can live, but you don’t have a future. You are in a box. You can’t go out of the box,” Husain said.

Husain has received no formal education in Malaysia. This is remarkable considering her drive to educate refugee women and children. Malaysians are supporting Rohingya Women’s Development Network by volunteering as teachers and support staff.

Rohinyga Women’s Development Network started officially last year. But Husain has spent the last decade educating her community’s most vulnerable women and children in their own homes.

“I have built up a trust. The men especially trust me. They feel safe sending their wives to our centre because they know me,” Husain said.

Word has spread and more refugee families are now attending Rohingya Women’s Development Network classes, where they receive English-language instruction, leadership training and brand new self-defence classes.

“We want to stop domestic violence. We want to stop child marriages in the community. We want to build up women’s empowerment,” Husain said. “We really need the Malaysia government to recognise us.”

Husain is trying to change the mentality in the Rohingya and wider refugee community in Malaysia, that women and girls can’t study, work, or earn an income. She receives some funding from UNHCR to run programmes but uses her own money to keep them going.

“Of course I have support from my family. My father is my hero. My husband is my hero. Both of these men have really pushed me forward,” Husain added.

The Rohingya Women’s Development Network has teamed up with Asylum Access Malaysia on a refugee theatre project. This will allow refugee women to educate the community on issues of sexual violence.

“What I think is so innovative about Sharifah and the team is that when we were discussing this project they said ‘we need to get men involved’,” Nambiar said.

Thumbs up by Sharifah Husain after class at Rohingya Women's Development Network

Thumbs up to students after class

Husain is appealing to others in the refugee community to support initiatives set up by the Malaysia government and civil society groups to help Rohingya women and children displaced in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

Malaysia is setting up a new 50-bed field hospital for refugees in Bangladesh. The European Rohingya Council (ERC) runs two camp clinics.

ERC’s Malaysia Ambassador Tengku Emma Zuriana works closely with the Rohingya Women’s Development Network helping refugee women in Malaysia and Bangladesh.

“I am trying to build an orphanage in Bangladesh to protect the children exposed to child trafficking,” Zuriana said. “We are trying to fundraise to build a proper orphanage with a school inside. They will be protected and receive education.”

To raise awareness of the plight of Rohingya women and children fleeing the atrocities in Myanmar to Bangladesh, the Rohingya Women’s Development Network is selling beaded jewelry made during class.

Despite the Malaysian government’s commitment to provide vital aid and healthcare to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, some in Malaysia say they’re also desperate and in need.

To improve the situation, Malaysia has launched a pilot project giving jobs to selected refugees. This, refugees hope, will pave the pathway to citizenship in Malaysia.

“It’s no different. In Myanmar they have been suffering. When they are outside of Myanmar, they come to Malaysia and expect something better. Things are not getting better,” Husain said. “They just escape death. But they’re still suffering here because they don’t have any rights.”

Asylum Access Malaysia’s director Deepa Nambiar said Rohingya refugees in Malaysia do receive a lot of sympathy, but not enough is done to help them integrate or assimilate.

“If we can be in a place where Rohingya women are educated, aware of their options, empowered to speak out, engage with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and partners [and] the government,” Nambiar said. “We have the right environment to do it in Malaysia.”

Husain said she believes the true function of Rohingya Women’s Development Network is to educate the community on its history – where it comes from and why it has been displaced all over Southeast Asia, and the world.

“We cannot destroy our [own] identity. If we do that, it’s very easy for Myanmar to say ‘they are really Bengali,’ I’m not Bengali!” Husain exclaimed.

“The younger generation needs to know who we are so we can fight for our rights.”


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Malaysia: Rohingya must be consulted before repatriation

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Rohingya groups hold a press conference at MAPIM in Shah Alam, Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Rohingya repatriation deal is being hailed as a “first step” by the Bangladesh government, but many argue the plan is premature.

Myanmar’s Rakhine state is the ancestral home for Muslim-majority Rohingya, but those living there face discrimination, violence, and segregation. Human rights group Amnesty International calls it a “system of apartheid”.

The repatriation deal does not take Rohingya refugees’ rights into consideration, said the European Rohingya Council (ERC). Its Malaysia ambassador, Tengku Emma Zuriana, has spoken out against it.

“This repatriation process should not proceed until the safety of the Rohingya [can be] ensured,” she said.

Malaysia is home to about 150,000 Rohingya. Several non-government organisations held a press conference here on Thursday to discuss the repatriation plan.

The United Nations and United States have stated the violent actions taken by Myanmar’s armed forces and “local vigilantes” amount to ethnic cleansing against its Rohingya minority.

“This must be a voluntary process, in safety and dignity, and for them to return to their homes – not into camps. And if there’s any loss of property and life, it must be compensated fairly,” Zuriana said.

Malaysian civil society groups and faith-based organisations urged the Myanmar government to end the violence, and to ensure the safety of the Rohingya living in Rakhine state before any repatriation process begins.

The Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organisation (MAPIM) said any repatriation deal must include protection and compensation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who’ve lost everything amid the heavy-handed “security clearance” operation.

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MAPIM President Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid speaks to reporters

“Even if the agreement has been finalised, we strongly call on the UN to ensure safe passage for the Rohingya to return back to their homes,” said MAPIM President Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid.

He went on to ask the international community and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): “What repatriation are they planning to implement when the Rohingya’s’ lives are totally destroyed?”

Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) wanted to remind Bangladesh of past Rohingya repatriations to Myanmar.

“[An] estimated 240,000 Rohingya were repatriated by the Bangladesh government under the 1978 agreement, which had a six month time limit. After that, Bangladesh repatriated about 236,000 Rohingya until 2005 under the 1992 agreement,” noted MERHROM President Zafar Ahmad.

In 2012, Myanmar’s armed forces began to force Rohingya into refugee camps, both in Rakhine state and across the border into Bangladesh.

Recent attacks on a police outpost in Rakhine state by the armed group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) sparked the latest army crackdown. More than 600,000 Rohingya fled their homes into Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

MERHROM wants the UN Security Council to conduct an assessment of the situation in Rakhine state, to ensure military operations against Rohingya have ceased.

Myanmar Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said the Rohingya could return only if they are “real citizens”.

The UN said on Friday the time wasn’t right for a Rohingya return.

“At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns. Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place,” he added.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Malaysia agree they must be consulted.

“Until the Myanmar government is serious to improve the situation, the Bangladesh government should not agree to any repatriation plan,” Zuriana said.

“The European Rohingya Council is calling [on] Myanmar authorities to grant full citizenship to the Rohingya and review the [1982] citizenship law.”

ERC called on the international community to send a clear message to Myanmar that it will not tolerate any further violence. It also said it wants to see the UN observe, support, and monitor all investigations into human rights violations.

Humanitarian agencies providing aid and medical services to the Rohingya in Rakhine state are not allowed to access secured areas, where those most affected need urgent help.

Until unhindered access is granted to aid agencies in Rakhine by the Myanmar government, refugee and civil society groups in Malaysia will continue to voice opposition to any agreement, they said.

The concern is Myanmar will force returning Rohingya into displacement camps and settlement zones protected by the same armed forces guilty of carrying out attacks them.

“They don’t have the freedom to go back home,” Zuriana said.


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