VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Hard living in the city
April 10, 2013 by Peter Biro
Malaysia is home to one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 120,000 refugees and stateless persons are living in the country. Refugees live in constant fear of arrest, abuse and detention; they struggle to find work and are at risk of exploitative employers. Malaysia has not signed U.N. conventions that protect the rights of refugees, and the government makes no distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Refugees are not allowed to work legally and access to humanitarian assistance, healthcare services, and educational opportunities is limited.
In a new report entitled, “In Search of Survival and Sanctuary in the City,” the International Rescue Committee (IRC) details the hardships faced by Burmese refugees living in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The report findings are based on a survey of over 1,000 Burmese refugees as well as focus group discussions and interviews with refugees, UNHCR and aid groups.
Photographs and text by Peter Biro
Over 90 percent of the 1,003 Burmese refugees interviewed by the IRC said that they did not receive any form of humanitarian aid or services in 2012. Food was a priority need identified by 14 percent of those interviewed.
This 28-year-old refugee from Myanmar (alos known as Burma) was arrested for not having proper documents and spent four months in jail. Before being released, he was sentenced to two lashes with a cane. Over 40 percent of refugees interviewed by IRC reported that at least one member of their household had been arrested by a Malaysian official; almost all for failing to have sufficient documentation.
Many refugees are members of persecuted ethnic and religious minority groups from Myanmar, including the Arakan, Burma Muslim, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rohingya and Shan. This ethnic Kachin refugee is taking part in a Baptist church service in Kuala Lumpur.
Unemployment among refugees in Kuala Lumpur is high; only one in three refugees interviewed by the IRC were employed. With few other options, most refugees work in low-paying, often exploitative jobs to make ends meet. These women spend 14 hours a day selling betel nut, a mild stimulant wrapped in a leaf.
Over 40 percent of refugees from Myanmar employed in Kuala Lumpur work in restaurants, like this 20-year-old who washes dishes in a restaurant downtown. Most refugees earn between 500 and 1,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$160 and US$330) per month, well below what an average Malaysian worker earns.
Almost all refugees from the Myanmar Muslim and Rohingya communities who were interviewed by the IRC expressed a fear of being forced to return to Myanmar where their people experience violence and discrimination. These refugees are worshipping at a mosque in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
Dr. Caroline Gunn treats refugees at a small non-profit health clinic in Kuala Lumpur. The clinic sees around 80 patients a day. Treatment at government hospitals can be prohibitively expensive for refugees, who are charged twice as much as the local rate unless they are registered with UNHCR.
This 26-year-old Chin refugee was paralyzed after falling from scaffolding at his job at a Kuala Lumpur construction site. His employer does not offer its workers harnesses, helmets or other safety gear and has refused to pay compensation. He is now being treated for free at a volunteer clinic that accommodates refugee patients. “I have no money so I’m lucky to be here,” he says.
Seventy-five Chin refugee children between the ages of four and 17 attend an informal learning center in this one room. According to the IRC report, refugee children do not have access to government-run schools and only 37 percent of refugee children attend informal learning programs run by aid groups.
This mother and daughter share a single room with 14 other people in a rundown high-rise building. Of those refugees interviewed by the IRC, one in three report sharing living space with more than 11 people.
This Chin woman lives with 17 people other people in a small house in a poor area of Kuala Lumpur. “Local people in this neighborhood often harass us, especially when they are drunk at night,” she says. “They don’t like foreigners.”
FAST FACTS FROM THE IRC REPORT:
In 2012, IRC researchers interviewed 1,003 Burmese refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The refugees were asked about their jobs, health, safety, housing and access to assistance and services, among other things. The IRC also organized focus groups with leaders of the refugee community and representatives of the U.N. and aid groups. The report points to critical gaps in services for refugees and includes recommendations to Malaysian law and policy makers. Read the full report here.
Among the key findings:
- 42 percent of refugees reported that at least one member of their household had been arrested in the past year. Almost all were arrested for failing to have documents. About half of all respondents reported paying money informally to Malaysian officials at least once during the past year, largely to avoid arrest.
- Out of 1,227 school-aged refugee children included in the survey, only 37 percent attend school regularly. Of the children who do attend school, over 90 percent attend informal learning centers run by community-based organizations or aid groups.
- Some 30 percent of the refugees interviewed report that they have experienced abuse or problems in the workplace, such as non-payment and partial payment of wages.
- Ten percent of 2,109 refugee children included in the survey work full time, of which 28 percent are under the age of 11. More than three quarters of refugees reported that their children work six to seven days a week and 81 percent said children work 8 to13 hour days per day.
- Only 9 percent of the refugees questioned said they report a crime to the police. Over 90 percent believed that the Malaysian authorities would not come to the aid of refugees who experience crime or other problems.