KUALA LUMPUR: Kim Lek walked and sometimes ran to Malaysia from her home in Chin State, Myanmar, at the age of 11.
With her mother and three siblings, she endured nine fear-filled days and nights of barefoot trekking, hiding from the police and soldiers and drinking from rivers as they crossed.
In Malaysia, they reunited with their father, who had gone ahead of them. The family has been here ever since, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But now, they have been told that UNHCR is withdrawing its protection after declaring that recent developments mean Myanmar is safe for the Chin to return.
It was announced in June last year that Malaysia’s 40,000 Chin refugees will no longer be considered as such, and must return home by 2020.
Kim, now 18, dreams of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon, a dream that will be dashed if she has to return to Chin State.
“Because the UN has said we have to go back, that will be very hard for us,” she said.
The Chin people are mostly Christian, converted by US missionaries in the 19th and 20th century. Many of them fled Myanmar because of the persecution and harassment they faced there.
James Bawi Thang Bik, from the Alliance of Chin Refugees, said they would be vulnerable to the problems that will inevitably occur when they go back.
“So far, there are no promises from the Myanmar government regarding identity cards,” he said. “But we can’t live there without them.
“A lot of the refugees grew up in Malaysia. Some were even born here, so they don’t remember anywhere else. Every month, about 200 more youngsters arrive, usually after having walked to Malaysia through the jungles.
“People who do go back usually return quickly to Malaysia because the situation in Myanmar is still far from stable.”
UNHCR issues cards to registered refugees. These provide limited protection from the authorities, as well as some access to health and education.
Under Malaysian law, registered and unregistered refugees are liable to arrest and deportation. However, refugees who can show UNHCR cards to police or immigration officials can usually avoid arrest.
As of January 2020, the Chin’s status as refugees will cease and their cards will no longer be renewed by UNHCR.
The Ruth Education Centre (REC) is a Christian residential school in Kuala Lumpur where many young Chin are rebuilding their lives and preparing for their futures.
FMT spoke to a group of young Chin students at REC about their experiences and hopes.
Brandon, 16, can never forget the night before his journey began.
“My parents came home wounded and bleeding after soldiers beat them up for preaching in their village.”
Cecilia, 15, remembers having to avoid walking in the daytime because of police and soldiers. “Sometimes we didn’t eat for days. The journey took a whole month,” she said.
Most come with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They gave up everything they owned so that they could leave as soon as an opportunity arose.
Lili, 17, said her family sold their land, property and belongings to pay shadowy agencies to help them escape.
“When we first came Malaysia, my parents told us not to play outside because of the police,” said Lili. “If they found us they would send us to detention centres.”
But for them, Malaysia is still a haven where they are able to live relatively contented lives with the chance of a real future thanks to the education they get at REC.
“In Malaysia, we have the opportunity to get a good future,” said Lili, “In Myanmar, I wouldn’t have a chance to learn English like here.”
Refugee status is the only identity these young people have. Most of them are undocumented, except for their UNHCR card.
“In Myanmar the soldiers came to our house and took all our documents,” said Brandon. “Since then, we have been illegal in our own country.”
“My parents have passed away. I am living with my sisters,” Cecilia said. “If we go back to Myanmar without proper documents we won’t be able to work.”
“Our future and our hopes depend on UNHCR, but now it’s like a bridge has been cut down,” said David, 17.
Between 2005 and 2017, UNHCR resettled more than 65,000 Chin people, nearly all from Malaysia. Most went to the US, with others going to countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Although Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said last October that the Malaysian government would not force refugees to return to Myanmar if it is unsafe, these youngsters are worried.
They would rather be refugees in Malaysia than illegal in their own country.
They believe that living in Malaysia is the best way for them to achieve their goals as it is the only place where they can be safe and have access to a proper education.
“Since the UN has announced that we are no longer refugees, I cannot see my future anymore,” said Cecilia, who wants to be a photographer.
If they are forced to return to their country, they will face the same harassment and persecution they suffered before, only worse as they will be aliens in their own country with no legal documents.
“Becoming a refugee was not a choice for these youngsters,” said James.
“Only education can save them and give them the chance of a decent future.”
“Back in Myanmar, when they realise that I was a refugee, they will make my life very difficult,” said Lili.
“It will be impossible for me to achieve my dreams.”