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The endless nightmare and the plight of stateless Rohingya Muslim migrants
The more than 3,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar who recently landed in Indonesia and Malaysia ended weeks of a nightmare at sea only to fall into an administrative limbo that could last years, even decades.
In a potential breakthrough in a crisis across Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to shelter the migrants, and thousands more who may still be at sea, on the condition that they be returned home or resettled in third countries within a year.
If the past is any guide, that goal may be hard to attain.
Few countries seem willing to accept the migrants, even the ones who qualify as refugees deserving asylum; there is already a tremendous backlog of applicants seeking resettlement; and the agencies that deal with them are overwhelmed.
“Even if we get the U.N. refugee status, we still don’t know how long we must wait before we can be resettled,” said Hasinah Ezahar, 28, who survived illness, hunger and threats from the smugglers she paid for the three-week sea journey with three of her children from western Myanmar. “Until then, our lives are just waiting.”
Rohingya migrants at a temporary shelter in Bayeun, Indonesia, part of a wave of migrants in the last two weeks. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Her family was part of a wave of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar who took to the seas seeking to escape poverty and, in the case of ethnic Rohingya like Ms. Hasinah, religious persecution.
As well, at least 200,000 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar are already in Bangladesh, and only 32,600 of them have been granted formal protection as refugees fleeing persecution, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Far fewer, perhaps only several hundred, have been resettled from refugee camps in Bangladesh over the past decade and allowed to begin new lives in other countries.
In Malaysia, those determined to be refugees and therefore eligible for resettlement, a process that could take years, would be joining more than 45,000 Rohingya who are already classified as refugees and are waiting to be taken in by another country. They receive no government aid while they wait, nor can they legally take jobs to support themselves.
About 1,000 Rohingya refugees were resettled in the United States in the last year.
“It’s a bit of a dirty little secret, but that population going to the U.S. is largely people in Malaysia who have been awaiting resettlement for 10 to 15 years,” said Amy Smith, an executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights group focusing on Southeast Asia.
While the refugees wait, they cannot send their children to government-accredited schools and are suspended in a social and legal limbo that local charities and off-the-books jobs can only partly relieve.
“It’s very frustrating for us,” said Anwar Ahmad, a Rohingya who has lived in Malaysia for 18 years and makes a living in the informal labor market. “We’re grateful that we can stay here, and grateful for the help we receive, but without a stronger official status, I have no future here in Malaysia.”
Even the first step in that process, winning recognition as refugees through the United Nations refugee agency, has become forbiddingly slow, said Rohingya migrants, human rights advocates and lawyers.
“I think the U.N.H.C.R. is also a bit overwhelmed with the numbers, especially so many who have been here for many, many years have not been resettled yet,” said Kamaruzzaman Askandar, a professor at the University of Malaysia Sabah, who has studied the conditions of Rohingya in Malaysia. “The numbers keep increasing and increasing. Many of the newcomers, especially, are not being registered even after a few months of coming over here.”
Ms. Smith, of Fortify Rights, said the refugee agency gave priority to those held in detention. About 1,000 recent arrivals are housed in the Belantik immigration detention depot in Kedah State in northern Malaysia. (The depot declined requests for a reporter from The New York Times to enter.)
An improvised hospital in Indonesia. More than 3,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar have landed in Indonesia and Malaysia in the last two weeks. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Those detainees, she said, might have their cases decided in seven to nine months. The others will wait even longer.
The classification process will not necessarily end well for most of the migrants. Migration experts say about half of the latest wave are economic migrants from Bangladesh who do not meet the requirements for refugee status.
They will be sent home as soon as possible, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments say, where their government may not welcome them with open arms.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh called the migrants “mentally sick” people who harmed the country’s image, and she said they would be punished along with their traffickers, the official Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha news agency reported.
The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim people who have long faced discrimination and have been deprived of basic rights in Myanmar, are likely to meet the criteria for refugee status under international law, namely having “a well-founded fear” of persecution for reasons of race, religion or nationality in their home country. They would be entitled to resettlement in third countries, and the United States said last week that it would take a leading role in any multi-country resettlement effort led by the United Nations refugee agency.
Rohingya men praying at their temporary shelter in Indonesia. Malaysia and Indonesia said they would shelter the migrants until they are returned home or resettled in third countries. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Such an effort, however, has yet to materialize.
According to the agreement hammered out last week by the foreign ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, none of those countries agreed to host any refugees permanently.
Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, said Thursday that his country would not take any refugees from the current exodus.
Gambia said last week that it would take in all the Rohingya migrants, but experts questioned whether the West African state, whose own citizens have joined the deadly migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, had the capacity.
Europe has its own migration crisis, as more than 1,700 migrants from Africa and the Middle East have died trying to enter Europe by sea in the first four months of this year, and more than 26,000 have landed.
A Rohingya woman and her child in an alley in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While migrants wait for their refugee status to be determined in Malaysia, they are not allowed to work or send their children to conventional schools. Credit Mohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“It’s going to be really hard,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “You have to have a number of governments say we will take quite a few Rohingya, but we haven’t seen that in the past.”
Decades in limbo is not an uncommon fate for refugees. Somali refugees have endured in a camp in Kenya for more than 20 years, while generations of Palestinians have lived in camps in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Many of the refugees here are likely to join Malaysia’s swelling underclass of Rohingya refugees.
The United Nations refugee agency says 45,910 Rohingya were registered in Malaysia before the latest influx. Richard Towle, the agency’s representative in Malaysia, estimates that there are an additional 30,000 or more Rohingya who are not registered, either because their applications have not been processed or because they have not tried to register.
The Rohingya refugees here say that Malaysia has treated them better than neighboring countries, but that their lives are circumscribed by the ban on work and schools, and by the difficulty in obtaining other permits for everyday needs.
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar at the refugee camp in Langsa, Indonesia. Even for those who qualify as refugees deserving asylum, few countries seem willing to accept them. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
“The most difficult thing is because the government law says we cannot work,” said Sahid Mohammed, a Rohingya man who fled his village in 2009 and made the trip to Malaysia by sea. He and other refugees said they made an uncertain living by working informally on building sites and in restaurants and shops, and by recycling scrap and hawking small goods.
“We would like to work to make a contribution, and to send money to our families, but we cannot keep good jobs because the bosses look at our cards and say, ‘You’re not allowed to work for me,’ ” he said. “Some bosses use that to exploit Rohingya, because they know we are working without real status.”
Mr. Towle said: “Given global priorities and the size of the problem here you are not going to be able to resettle your way out of a refugee problem of this size. It’s not feasible. We think that if people are going to be here anyway we think it is good to regularize their status and give them the right to work.”
Rohingya children in Malaysia attend privately run schools, often supported by volunteers, or they do not go to school at all.
“Some of the children work as well,” said Dewi Karina Kamarulzaman, a graduate student who teaches at the Peace Learning Center, a makeshift school in a two-story home here on Penang Island with more than 50 Rohingya children.
She estimated that more than half of Rohingya children in Penang did not attend school, often for lack of transportation. “They can’t even afford the bus fare,” she said.
Ms. Hasinah, who is living with her husband and the three children in a single room in a shared house, has a more pressing concern: a 13-year-old son she left behind because she could not afford to pay the smugglers to take all four children.
Her family’s most urgent priority is finding the means and the money to bring him to Malaysia.
“Wherever we go,” she said, cradling her 2-year-old daughter, “it must be with my son.”
Chris Buckley reported from Gelugor, and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong. Michael Forsythe contributed reporting from Hong Kong.