Zafar himself is Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from the Rakhine state in western Myanmar who have been subjected to ethnic and religious persecution in the predominantly Buddhist country for years.
The Rohingya are unrecognised as citizens by their government, and are considered ‘stateless’ immigrants in their own country although they claim to have lived there for centuries.
Many of the dark-skinned people of Bengali descent say that they are not allowed to practice their own culture, religion or even speak their own language. Hundreds have been killed, and their villages burnt allegedly by the military and police.
Such systematic persecution or “ethnic cleansing” as some call it, has led hundreds of thousands to flee their homeland to seek asylum and safety. They leave in dangerous boats – risking drowning on high seas and enduring days of starvation and sickness – with hopes to get to any land that will offer refuge.
Many have ended up in Bangladesh, others in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and India. Some even made it as far as Australia.
Being Rohingya in Malaysia
In Malaysia, the Rohingya have been seeking refuge since the 80s, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stating that there are 36,290 of them here (as of April 2014). There are perhaps a few thousand more unaccounted for.
Astro AWANI recently visited some of them living in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and found that life as a Rohingya refugee in Malaysia is not at all easy.
“It didn’t matter where (we went then), as long as we lived,” says Zafar, who arrived in Malaysia as ‘boat people’ 22 years ago.
For Zafar and majority of the asylum seekers who made the perilous journey to flee from being killed and tortured in the own country; they only fall victim to human trafficking, migrant exploitation and abuses in another country.
In effect, they are caught between a rock and a hard place: stateless back home and stateless in their new homes.
Living and working in fear
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugees Convention. As such, there are no legal mechanisms in place to give any status to refugees. Although the Malaysian government has gradually softened its stance through the years, they are vulnerable to constant harassment and detention.
“I was arrested 14 times (in Malaysia I can tell you exactly what goes on in detention camps, immigration lockups and police stations.
“Thinking about it makes me really sad. We are also human,” says Zafar, who has been heading the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) as its president for some years.
MERHROM advocates for human rights, especially for the Rohingya refugees who are not allowed to work, or much of anything else, in Malaysia even if they hold a UNCHR card.
Zafar said many are forced to do work illicitly to make a living for themselves and their families here. Only kind employers would take these ‘illegals’ as workers and often, they earn a pittance.
“Try to work, just be smart about it,” says Zafar, who is ‘lucky’ to be married to a Malaysian woman and can run a grocery store business registered under her name.
No going back, yet
Others do not have such ‘luxury’. Asked about their hopes and dreams, many Rohingya Astro AWANI spoke to could only make a small attempt to express their wishes while their lives remain in such an uncertain state.
“I can’t be there (back in Myanmar). They will catch and shoot and kill me. My uncle was already shot dead,” says Ibrahim Amer Hamzah, 31, who has already been caught more than 50 times by Malaysian authorities over the past 12 years.
“I just want to work and eat (cari makan) here, I can’t go back,” says Norislam Abu Bashar, 24.
Mohd Yuusof, 40, takes care of seven in the family and does not have a stable job. “It’s hard. How? We can’t work and are only living because of people who are kind and help us.
“Go back? But I don’t have a village anymore. Many have been shot dead, my village was burnt, finished,” says Mohd Yuusof.
Some of the many children who are here as well want to study, but only a handful are being helped by volunteers who set up tuition centres for them.
For Zafar, things are a little easier with the help of his Malaysian wife, but he still hopes for things to be better here and back home.
“If Myanmar achieves democracy tomorrow, tomorrow I go back. Now we are all here in Malaysia, we just want to stay legal,” he says.
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