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Not long ago, I found myself in two different rooms on opposite sides of a weekend and an ocean, but reflected as if by a mirror. Each had rows of chairs laid out, some for questioners, one for answerers, and between them, as narrow a space as could still demarcate authority. One room was the chapel of my father’s nursing home in Sydney; the other was under a kampungroof in Penang battered by a midmorning downpour. In one I was a questioner; in the other, an answerer. On their face, the questions asked in each room were of separate worlds. In Penang, refugees from Myanmar – some of the tens of thousands who have fled by boat in recent years – asked me how their children could go to school, how they could keep jobs without paying bribes, how to find lost family members still or imminently en route. In Sydney, as the family members of the nursing home residents, we asked about lost laundry, and how frequently staff are required to change gloves, and if enough swivel room for a shower trolley would be preserved in planned renovations that would make each room en suite.
Even as the words came out of my mouth, I couldn’t help but think how absurd they would have sounded to the refugees in Penang, how strange it is that we all inhabit this same earth.
Even by UN standards, our Regional Maritime Movements Monitoring Unit at the Regional Office for South-East Asia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a cumbersome name, but a straightforward ambit: Find out as much as we can about the journeys that refugees make by sea in this part of the world.
The Unit is still in its early days, but already our work is prone to the deep gulf, so familiar in this line of work, between our personal experiences and those of the persons of concern to us. I wish I could draw from my own family’s many migrations between countries and continents over the last century, but the last time any of those migrations was by boat was almost 70 years ago, when my grandmother embarked from the southeast coast of China to marry my grandfather in Indonesia. And while those journeys were not always easy, some not entirely by choice, none would remotely compare to the recent passages we have been learning about, the scores who have been and continue attempting to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia. According to our estimates, some 62,000 people attempted the journey in 2014.
We have heard so many stories now that questions we would think twice about asking – or avoid altogether – in any normal conversation have become unavoidably routine. At UNHCR, that is simply the nature of our work, and as a former refugee status determination officer, I know well the surreal daily habit of asking a perfect stranger to recall for you their darkest memories. But there is still nothing normal about asking someone how many people died on their boat, how many starved or succumbed to illness, how many were beaten and thrown overboard. I don’t remember much from my criminal law lectures, but whether criminally negligent or outright murderous, I know that these are all culpable acts of killing. Based on the hundreds of interviews we have conducted, we think 750 people may have died this way last year.
“We expected it to be harsh,” one man said to us in Penang. “But not this harsh.”
The inferno begins with whatever hardship has forced people to get on boats unsafe not so much for their seaworthiness, which has improved with the use of larger cargo ships, but for the malicious treatment on board, “as if animals,” another man said, above the din of the rain. It is a phrase we have heard repeatedly, from Thailand to Malaysia to Indonesia. Some children have even been herded to sea against their will, plucked off the street to fill empty crevices on a boat.
Survivors at sea are guided by their smugglers to the next circle, remote jungle camps in Thailand where they are held in equally severe conditions until their relatives can pay ransoms of $2,000, which have generated more than $100 million in annual revenues for the smugglers. Some refugees have had such meager nourishment that their bodies give up. Their limbs go slack and only at the payment of the ransom or the mercy of a smuggler are they dragged to Malaysia, if not abandoned by the side of a road in the forest. Our colleagues in Malaysia arrange treatment and shelters for the hundreds of refugees who have presented to our office in Kuala Lumpur with varying degrees of paralysis, but many never make it that far; one man told us he had with his own hands buried dozens who had starved to death in a smugglers’ camp.
Those who do make it to Malaysia with their health carry the same legal status that most of them have had for most of their lives: none. Work is available, but inconsistent except for the extortion that often accompanies informal employment. Hospitals and schools are prohibitively expensive; loved ones go without treatment, children without learning. So when we have heard, anecdotally, that some grow envious of the smugglers’ takings and get back on the boats, to jump back into the inferno and circle through all over again, only this time for a share of the profit, it makes no sense and it makes complete sense. I am beginning to understand it is not something I will ever understand.
In the south of Thailand, a group of young women rescued from a smugglers’ camp by Thai authorities tell us they are determined to make it to Malaysia on their own, even if it means forsaking the safety of the shelter they have been given by the authorities. We counsel them about the dangers of falling back into the smuggling cycle, but in our monitoring role have little to offer in the way of durable solutions. The women seem to enjoy talking to us, if only to break the monotony, and they tell jokes and stage a faux protest when we are about to leave, giggling as they ask us to take them in our car to Bangkok. There are lighter moments like these, even if they merely paint over a heavier tint.
We met one refugee on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur as he drove a van of Rohingya children home from a UNHCR-supported school. Yahya was the school bus driver; he also taught math, and English, and Malay. He had just been approved for resettlement to the United States, and told me about joining his brother in Chicago. Having endured eight American winters while I was in college and law school, I told Yahya he should get ready for the kind of cold that actually hurts, and that now would probably be a good time to start following basketball. We later heard that had Yahya made it to Wisconsin, just in time for Thanksgiving. And winter.
In Penang, at one of the few other schools available to Rohingya children, this one supported entirely by a professor and his friends and students, we get a tour of a new schoolhouse they have just leased. There are two floors and a wide stairway, with walls carpeted by new coats of pastel paint and speckled with fluorescent cutouts of random geometric shapes. It is an unambiguously modest space, but safe, and warm, not unlike the way I remember my own kindergarten in Taiwan. There is even a small yard for children to run around, and when I ask the professor whether the students have any particular disciplinary issues, he says that they did, initially.
“They had to learn what it means to go to school,” he says, because, of course, most had never been before.
One Rohingya community in Penang is especially difficult to find, until our resourceful taxi driver recognizes a neighborhood where, as a lorry driver, he once delivered goods to the people he called, “Burmas.” When we knock on the door of a house that seems less empty than others, a woman emerges with her son, whose t-shirt is the kind my would-be rapper friends might wear. It reads, “I GOT SWAG EVERY DAAAMN DAY & NIGHT”.
The woman knows the man we are looking for. “He went to see the UN,” she says, not realizing we are the UN. Another community in Penang is tucked to the side of a hectic road, close enough to feel the pull of trucks buzzing by. As we hold a group discussion, with mostly young men visibly on edge about being detained, an older man with white taqiyah and beard hovers nearby, trying to catch our eye. When he does, my colleague smiles at him and tells me that he knows the man.
“We are from the same town in Myanmar,” my colleague says, after we finish our interviews. “We went to the same school.” That was three decades ago.
There is another reunion we await. Two weeks after we met the group of young women in Thailand, we were told they had left their government shelter. Now we keep a constant eye out for them in Malaysia, gently greeting the women in each community and searching for familiar smiles among them. We hold out hope that our tracks will cross again, that they will have made it, and can laugh with us about it, an uplifting interlude set against these songs of suffering.
I try not to try too hard to find commonality when I know there is so little, when forcing it would be patronizing. But sometimes there are openings.
One afternoon in Penang, Hamid, a longtime refugee who volunteered his home for our meetings, bounced his infant son on his knee while his older son worked hard to make his little brother smile, gleefully contorting his face behind a turquoise homemade superhero mask with rubber bands looped around his ears. Their mother was from Indonesia, we were told, and so the way some things just come out easier with children, I said to the aspiring Boy Wonder, “My mother is from Indonesia, too.”
There was only a moment of acknowledgment from both the boy and his father, passing without event. Maybe they appreciated the gesture, maybe it meant nothing to them. But after the usual initial jolt, peering over the gulf between us and trying to comprehend its vastness, this is the thought that lingers with me, of the things we share.
Hamid may go his whole life without ever considering the turning angle of a shower trolley, just as I can blessedly expect never to worry about paying a bribe to hold down a job. But he and I both will always carry the guilt of leaving our loved ones in an unfamiliar place, will always worry we have not done right enough by them, will always seek to atone for that somehow. Some of us in the room ask the questions, and some of us are meant to give answers, but we are all of us in need, all just trying to make things a little easier, the seas a little calmer, this world a little kinder.
The writer Keane Shum is the Associate Protection Officer of UNHCR. He leads the Regional Maritime Movements Monitoring Unit at the UNHCR Regional Office for South-East Asia