Thousands of Myanmar refugees, asylum seekers stuck in Malaysian poverty cycle
|The UNHCR says there are more than 150,000 asylum seekers or refugees in Malaysia waiting to be permanently resettled in another country. (Photo: ABC)|
By Iskhandar Razak
June 30, 2015
Thousands of asylum seekers and refugees who have survived the life-threatening journey from Myanmar are finding themselves trapped in a new cycle of poverty and ignorance in Malaysia.
In Kuala Lumpur the only way some can make money is by picking up trash that can be recycled or sold.
"We earn about 30 to 35 Ringgit [$1] per pay. It is not enough for our family," said Muhammad Hassan, a Rohingya man who arrived by boat just a few months ago.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or go to public school in the South-East Asian nation.
Many refugees and asylum seekers are forced to work in the "informal sector" or "grey market".
In Kuala Lumpur that means groups of Rohingya men scour the streets collecting cans, plastic bottles and other trash.
But $1 per day does not go very far when you need to buy food, clothes and pay for rent.
Muhammad Hassan, a Rohingya asylum seeker from Myanmar, said life in Malaysia was "very difficult".
"We are very unhealthy, and uneducated and poor people," he said.
"If we cannot work here, as refugees, how can we survive?"
The families of the men working together collecting garbage also live together to reduce costs.
At least three families live in a two-bedroom flat the ABC visited, and the family may be forced to stay in these cramped conditions for years.
Refugees say they are persecuted by Buddhist majority
The UNHCR said there were more than 150,000 asylum seekers or refugees in Malaysia waiting to be permanently resettled in another country.
"Our community would like to go to Myanmar again, because this is not our home country," Mr Hassan said.
"If not possible, we would prefer to go to a third country, like Australia, America or Canada."
Most of the refugees and asylum seekers waiting in Malaysia are from Myanmar and are mainly either Rohingya Muslims or Christian Chin.
Both say they are persecuted by the Buddhist majority.
They say that includes violent attacks, restrictions on movement, what work they can do and what kind of education they can get.
Children forced to go to secret schools
In Malaysia, refugees and asylum seekers also cannot go to public school, but some children go to hidden unofficial schools.
One such school in Kuala Lumpur has 46 students, aged between three and 15, according to head teacher Zachunghain.
"We have a poor education there, so they come here to try because their future will be better."
The school is funded through donations and staffed by volunteers, like Australian Mara Whittaker.
"They, [the Chin] live in extreme poverty here and not looked after," Ms Whittaker said.
She said there are about 13,000 school-aged Chin refugees in Malaysia.
"40 per cent of them of them have no formal education," Ms Whittaker said.
"I hope for a great education for them so they can make simple choices in life, like who they can be."
Ms Whittaker said that even when teachers are not available some students come to school to keep studying in the hopes that when they are re-settled somewhere else they can continue their education.
But there are very few teenagers at the school because eventually they need to find what little work they can to help feed and clothe themselves and their family.
"I have one student who left last year, she was 12, to stay home and look after a baby," Ms Whittaker said.
"And my heart breaks for her because I feel that there is no hope for her."