KUALA LUMPUR: Kachin refugees have spoken about the challenges they face while living in Malaysia, including lack of protection from the police and the inability to work legally.
At the 20th anniversary celebration of the Kachin Refugee Committee (KRC) yesterday, chairman James La Seng said the refugees are often scared to leave their houses because there is always a chance that they will be arrested and deported, even after they have registered themselves with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“Every time we walk (on the streets) or go to sleep, we worry,” he told FMT.
Under the Immigration Act 1959, Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees and instead classifies them as illegal migrants.
This means they do not have the legal right to work and, therefore, have to take up casual jobs, leaving them vulnerable to detention and deportation.
La Seng said they are also exploited at work, with employers withholding their wages and threatening them with arrest.
“Sometimes, they will go two to three months without getting paid, but they don’t know who to turn to for help because they are officially illegal immigrants,” he said.
Established in 2003, the KRC has since registered more than 10,000 people. It provides assistance to the Kachin people in Malaysia, including serving as mental health counsellors and interpreters at hospitals, police stations and detention centres.
According to UNHCR, there are about 182,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia as of July.
More than 85% of them are from Myanmar, including 106,000 Rohingya, 23,700 Chins and 28,800 members of other ethnic groups that have fled from persecution or conflict-ridden areas.
Internal conflicts in Myanmar’s northernmost state date back to the 1960s. Negotiations between the insurgents and the country’s military armed forces led to a brief period of peace in the Kachin region from 2018 to 2020.
However, everything changed in 2021 following a military takeover that saw violence in many villages across the Kachin state. As a result, an estimated 200,000 people across the country were forced to flee their homes, UNHCR reported.
Htoi San Nhkum, who fled to Malaysia with her husband in 2008, said although she has no idea what her future holds, her hope is to be resettled in a country that would give her citizenship.
Her work as the head teacher of the Kachin Refugee Learning Centre (KRLC) keeps her occupied for the time being.
Established in 2007, the KRLC boasts 480 students and 31 full-time teachers. As refugees are not recognised by Malaysia, Kachin children are not able to pursue an education in public schools, while private schools are out of the question.
Nhkum had asked the Malaysian government to treat people like her with kindness and care as they have been through a lot to get here: “We don’t want to be traumatised again.”
Activists have long since urged the government to create a legal framework to recognise refugees in Malaysia.
This sentiment was championed by 18-year-old Steven Myithung, who found refuge in Malaysia almost 10 years ago.
“The government can help us just by recognising us as refugees and giving us the rights we deserve,” he said.