Hope is in short supply for exiled refugees

The West Australian ©

 

In Kuala Lumpur's run-down Imbi district, just a few blocks from the shops and bars of Bukit Bintang, the sound of children's voices echo through the concrete slums.

"Present, teacher," each yells out in quick succession as names are called from a roll.

Washing hangs out of every window.

A few floors below, a group of drug addicts are huddled together, shooting up in the stairwell.

But here in four small rooms at the top of a concrete apartment block, a group of volunteers are trying to give the children something that resembles a normal childhood.

The school is unmarked and illegal.

The children crammed on the floor are all Burmese refugees living in exile and are banned from getting a Malaysian education.

So the learning is done like everything in Kuala Lumpur's refugee community: underground.

Here, in the grim refuge of the fleeing, the desperate and the unwanted, hope has been in short supply for years.

There are no refugee camps in Malaysia.

Instead, the tens of thousands of refugees living under the radar are spread out in the cities and the slums, living 8-20 in just a single room, working illegally and in constant fear of raids, beatings, arrest and detention.

More than 94,000 people are registered as refugees with UNHCR's Malaysia office, hoping for resettlement or integration. But do the maths and the chances look grim.

No matter how many deserving cases there might be, just six countries - the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden and the Czech Republic - will take about 8000 between them each year.

The rest live in limbo, eking out an existence in a shadow society hidden beneath the veneer of Kuala Lumpur and hoping that the 'queue' - which, contrary to political myth, isn't 'first come, first served' - twists somehow, some time in their favour.

So it's no surprise that while the ethics of the Gillard Government's controversial refugee swap promote heated debate in Australia, only one word is being used in the slums of Kuala Lumpur: hope.

"It means there is more of a chance for us," says Patrick Sang Bawi Hnin, a 25-year-old Burmese refugee who says he fled to Malaysia almost three years ago at the urging of his family after a near-death beating by Burmese soldiers.

"It means there will be more places and more opportunities for a better life."

Of the 94,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, 87,000 are from Burma with the biggest proportion being the Christian Chin ethnic minority, the group most likely to benefit from the deal with Australia and the most likely to see their numbers boosted.

About 1500 Chin are crammed into the concrete blocks of the Imbi district. There are occasional raids and beatings but authorities mostly turn a blind eye.

"It is a difficult life, we are always in fear," says Patrick.

But when asked about the differences between applying for asylum in Australia and living in fear in Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention guaranteeing protection to refugees, he says living in Kuala Lumpur still gives the refugees more dignity than they would have in an Australian refugee camp.

It is an answer echoed by other Malaysian 'illegals', who admit they live in constant fear being rounded up by Malaysian police, beaten and locked in a detention centre at any time. But they point to the informal schools and church services every Sunday night - made possible by a sympathetic Chinese Christian group giving them access to the church - which gives them a level of normality they would not get in a camp.

They can also work, albeit illegally and are constantly exploited.

This strong sense of informal community comes with numbers, of course, which the Chin have, and creates a support network not accessible to the smaller numbers of Afghans, Somalis and Iraqis registered in Malaysia as refugees.

"It is not an easy environment for refugees," UNCHR spokeswoman Yante Ismail says.

"However, there are some positive elements."

One important fact is that refugees can move freely - they are not in camps and are able to be empowered to find their own ways of coping and rebuilding their lives with dignity.

"It is true that we wish they could work legally, but refugees are able to access the informal work sector and they have opportunities for self-reliance."

She says the deal with Australia could also pave the way for better conditions for refugees in Malaysia, which is why the UNHCR is cautiously supporting it.

It is Friday afternoon and six-year-old Thang Chin Sang is sitting on his father's knee and talking about a place far away called Perth.

For most of his short life, he has known nothing but the slums of the Imbi district.

He grins and says he wants to be a soccer player. His eight-year-old sister wants to be a famous singer. His other sister, 10, says she wants to study medicine.

"I want to help people," Sung Len Tial says, swaying on her chair.

"I want to go to a real school."

Hope finally came for them last week, when they were told that they had been accepted by a foreign country for resettlement. Like other refugees, they didn't have a choice where they would be sent. They didn't care. But Australia agreed to take them. In a few weeks' time, they will be resettled in Perth, one of two cases headed for WA.

Their father, Ngun Hnin, says the news was like a dream.

He was working as forced labour in a tea plantation in Burma when the family fled to Malaysia five years ago. He has been working illegally in Kuala Lumpur ever since, installing electrical wiring for 50 Ringgit ($15) a day and trying to support his family.

"Now my children have a chance," he says

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