Chin Refugees Struggle While Awaiting UNHCR Registration And Resettlement

This article was extracted from the website of Malaysia Today.

Summary

1. (SBU) In their primitive jungle camps and at a medical clinic they established in Kuala Lumpur, Burmese Chin refugees recently described to us their harassment by police and their perceptions of UNHCR indifference regarding their plight.

Up to 1,000 Chins live in jungle camps abutting palm oil plantations within five miles of Malaysia's seat of government in Putrajaya. Approximately 60 percent of these and other Chin refugees remain unregistered by the UNHCR, largely due to the UNHCR's decision last year to cease new registrations of non-emergency refugee cases. 

Working on the plantations for little money and uncertain payment of wages, receiving access to medical care only in some emergency situations, and facing arrest and deportation if captured by Malaysian authorities, unregistered Chin refugees living in the jungle remain among the most vulnerable and exploited refugees in Malaysia. 

During our recent meetings with over 100 of these refugees, they conveyed their impatience to get UNHCR documentation, their desire for basic medical care and English language training, and their hope for resettlement to a third country as soon as possible.  End Summary.

Chin Refugees Struggling in Jungle Camps

2. (SBU) Together with two Burmese Chin refugees acting as guides and interpreters on November 15, poloff visited two jungle camps housing about 200 Chin refugees near the Malaysian administrative capital in Putrajaya.  The camps are located on the edges of palm oil plantations where some of the refugees find work as day laborers. 

The camps shared common physical characteristics.  In small clearings hacked out of the jungle, the Chins erected temporary shelters using wooden poles, plywood for elevated sleeping platforms, and fluttering sheets of plastic for roofing and walls. 

A sense of devotion to Christianity pervaded each camp.  Each camp contained a church structure (the largest and most well-maintained structure in each camp) and all of the approximately 100 square foot dwellings viewed by poloff prominently displayed crosses or pictures of Jesus. 

Neither camp had been visited by UNHCR representatives during at least the past two years, according to the Chins.  Poloff's guides said the Chins have established as many as five other jungle camps in the vicinity of the Putrajaya palm oil plantations.  Collectively, the camps may contain up to 1,000 Chin refugees within five miles of the Prime Minister's office.

Living in Fear of Extortion, Raids and Deportation

3. (SBU) The first camp we visited was only 500 meters from a paved road. It is well-known to local police. During discussions with four men living in the camp, they said local police visited the camp regularly in search of refugees who have not yet been registered with the UNHCR.

In exchange for the refugee's freedom, the police take all money possessed by such individuals. According to the refugees, the police have not alerted immigration officials to the presence of the camp, as they do not want immigration officers to destroy the camp and thereby impede the police's extortion activities.

Refugees in this camp told us police recently asked them to dismantle their church structure. The police said the church's presence could force government officials to burn and raze the camp, as local Muslim villagers have complained about the "unregistered" church's existence in the jungle near their homes. 

This is not an empty threat. A similar camp was destroyed earlier this year, following complaints about the camp's church by local residents. The camp and church have been recently rebuilt, with the church disguised as a meeting hall during the week.

Hard Work for Uncertain Payment

4. (SBU) The refugees said they are paid about RM25 ($6.75) for a full day's work on the plantations, but that the work is sporadic and their wage payments are often delayed and sometimes completely withheld.

One of the men said he had not been paid in over a month. He continued working, despite the probability of receiving less than full payment, as he needed to feed his three children, aged 4-10, who lived with his sister in another nearby camp. He said his 33 year-old wife recently died suddenly of heat exhaustion while working at one of the plantations. 

Non-payment of wages and other forms of labor exploitation at plantations, construction sites and restaurants continue to plague the approximately 20,000 Chin refugees currently living in Malaysia, according to our sources.

Frustration With the UNHCR

5. (SBU) Following a 30 minute hike, we arrived at a second, much more remote camp. This camp was situated in a ravine and accessible only through a winding, narrow path. Camp residents claimed its existence is unknown to police and immigration officials, and the camp has never been raided.

Approximately 100 camp residents, including 20 women and children, greeted poloff outside the camp's church and answered questions about their living conditions and relationship with the UNHCR. Most of the refugees have lived in the camp for 1-2 years, although one man claimed to have lived there four years. All were Zomi Chin refugees. 

About 20% were registered with the UNHCR, prior to the UNHCR's temporary suspension of most new refugee registrations last year. The refugees complained about the UNHCR's perceived unwillingness to register "non-emergency" refugee cases such as theirs, as UNHCR documentation is their only form of protection from deportation.

(Note: As of July 1, 2006 the UNHCR had provided its formal recognition to 7,805 Chin "persons of concern" in Malaysia, up moderately from 6,566 at year-end 2005.)

6. (U) They all hoped for resettlement into a third country as soon as possible. They wished to leave the jungle, and they described conditions in the camp as "dangerous and unhealthy. Of the camp's total population of about 125 persons, two were killed and 18 injured by lightning during 2006.

One resident told poloff's translator, "We would rather die here than go back to Burma. They remained unaware that the United States planned to resettle thousands of Chin refugees from Malaysia.

Poloff informed them that the USG and UNHCR are gearing up to "significantly increase" resettlement of Chin refugees into the United States starting next year. They were pleased to hear this, although they remained sceptical of how the UNHCR registration process will proceed. The prospect of resettlement didn't terribly excite them, probably because the concept seemed much closer to theory than reality, and their day-to-day survival currently demands their full attention.

Chin Medical Care on Ad Hoc Basis

7. (U) On November 9, poloff visited a refugee medical clinic organized by the Alliance of Chin Refugees (ACR), one of the two largest entities representing the interests of Chins in Malaysia.

(Note: the other large organization is the Chin Refugee Committee (CRC), which claims to have about 17,400 members here.).

Located in Kuala Lumpur in a non-descript two-storey walkup, the clinic is staffed by two French doctors, one French nurse and a Burmese doctor (all volunteers). The clinic treats 30-40 persons during its once weekly operating hours for a charge of RM10 (about $2.75) per patient.

The clinic is funded solely by donations from Chin and other refugees and has only limited medical instruments and medicine supplies.

One of the French doctors commented that tuberculosis is common among the refugees and that few of the approximately 800 Chin children in Malaysia have received basic immunizations.  She was aware of the Chin's jungle camps near Kuala Lumpur and expressed frustration that no one had yet funded a medical outreach program to treat sick individuals in those camps. She said the Chin community also needed money for treatment of psychological trauma, as well as pre-natal care and medical facilities to ensure proper delivery of the increasing number of Chin babies born in Malaysia.

Comment

8. (SBU) The ARC and CRC have performed admirably in their attempts to organize and care for their own people, but institutional funding is needed to provide basic medical treatment and English language training for both children and working adults.

Given our pending resettlement of thousands of Chin refugees from Malaysia, modest investments in immunizations, medical care and English language training in Malaysia's relatively low cost environment would yield substantial benefits for both the Chin refugees and the United States.

Post looks forward to working with PRM, UNHCR, IOM, DHS, the Overseas Processing Entity and the Department's regional refugee affairs office in Bangkok to resettle large numbers of these refugees as quickly and smoothly as possible.  We will remain actively engaged in that process, while also coordinating with PRM and the UNHCR to ensure timely provision of additional PRM funding this fiscal year for basic medical and education needs of the Chins and other refugee communities.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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