AMPANG, Malaysia — For refugees from Myanmar who have reached Malaysia, life may well be better than the grim marginalization and persecution they fled. But even here, poverty and exclusion threaten to rob them of a voice in determining their own future.
The boatloads of persecuted Rohingya who landed here desperate and exhausted last month join some 75,000 Rohingya who made their way to Malaysia years and even decades before. Judging by the hardships their forerunners face, it will be difficult for the latest wave either to establish a secure foothold or to achieve resettlement elsewhere.
“From a country, we have become stateless, and as refugees, we have become stateless again,” said Mohammed Noor, the managing director of Rohingya Vision TV, an online news service based in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. “We’re a floating people now, floating everywhere without any hope, without any papers.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was supporting 31 “learning centers” across Malaysia for Rohingya children, and other schools operate without United Nations support. But Abdul Ghani, the president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human Rights Organization Malaysia, said that only a small fraction of Rohingya children in Malaysia received a steady education.
Access to medical care can be another problem. “I try to help these people, because I have also suffered,” said Ismail Ahmad, a Rohingya practitioner of traditional medicine who fled Myanmar in 2007 and said he was helping about 60 migrants, many of them recent arrivals. “But we don’t have much money for medicine or food, so often there is not much we can do.”
Mr. Ahmad showed a poultice of herbs wrapped in cloth and tied around a warm brick, which he used to treat paralysis and cramps that migrants suffer after long sea voyages.
“Sometimes they have lived for two or three months in the hold, and so they cannot walk by themselves,” he said. “But this is the best treatment we can offer.”
In Malaysia, their status as refugees and unregistered migrants bars them from sending their children to government schools, meaning many receive little or no education. They are also barred from holding jobs legally, but necessity compels most of the men to find menial off-the-books labor.
“Decades of policies in Myanmar have left many Rohingya illiterate and impoverished, and that’s hard to shake off as refugees,” said Gerhard Hoffstaedter, an anthropologist from the University of Queensland in Australia who studies the Rohingya and other refugee groups in Malaysia.
“The Rohingya have an amazing capacity for suffering, but they’ve been given so few stories of success,” he said.
Even so, compared with the bamboo shacks and fetid detention camps they left behind, Malaysia offers at least some modicum of hope and opportunity, if not the kinder reception, decent jobs and schools, and swift resettlement that many hoped for.
The Rohingya have managed to establish enclaves in several neighborhoods on the edges of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, living in concrete housing blocks and shopping in open-air markets. Here in the Ampang district, tens of thousands of Rohingya crowd into apartments and dilapidated houses that often hold several families each.
Many Rohingya men find occasional work on construction sites or in cheap restaurants in the city, and some women work in stalls and shops. In the Selayang neighborhood, hundreds of Rohingya stall holders sell fruit and vegetables, mixing with other poor migrants, including many from Myanmar.
“We are not rich people, but this is better than what we left behind,” said Mohammed Ayub, a Rohingya who has lived in Malaysia for three years and runs a tailor shop in Taman Muda on the edge of Kuala Lumpur. “What is most important is that we have some security here. We don’t have much, but we have some security.”
Most pressing of all, many migrants said they faced a long, uncertain wait for the United Nations refugee agency office in Kuala Lumpur to accredit them as refugees, which would entitle them to a precious identity card that many see as their best protection against detention or abuse by officials and the police.
“It’s almost impossible to get the U.N. card,” said Ambiya Kadahusan, a 21-year-old Rohingya who said she applied nearly a year ago and had yet to receive a response. “Without a card, we feel it’s unsafe to go out and look for work, or even visit friends.
“The police check: ‘Where are you from? Are you a Bangladeshi worker?’ And sometimes you have to pay some money to be let go.”
Many Rohingya believe that their circumstances here are part of an elaborate plot by the Myanmar government to keep them weak and stigmatized, even in exile. Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, considers the Rohingya illegitimate Muslim intruders from what is now Bangladesh, and in 1982 it stripped many Rohingya of citizenship.
About 25,000 migrants left Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety smugglers’ boats in the first three months of 2015, according to a United Nations estimate.
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Source:New York Times.
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