Realities of Rohingya Refugees
Refugee issues require constant attention, beyond temporary sensationalization
ACHR's monthly newsletter Hurasia, its February issue deals with the realities of Rohingya refugee. The specific issue was initiated in 2010 through street campaign and the fundraising concert "Freedom from Fear", organized in November 2010. Mr. Hakim strives to advocate the rights of Rohingya refugees, first of all, by increasing public awareness on the issue, especially here in Korea. Throughout the interview, he shared his stories without losing his composure, and constantly referred to the difficult realities they face. He added that refugee issues require constant attention, not temporary news flash on a specific event. The interview took place on 2011.1.31 at a makeshift factory, where he worked and resided.
Q. You were granted the refugee status here in Korea in 2005. You left your home in 1988 when Myanmar was going through pro-democracy movement. What happened between then and 2005?
I entered Korea in 2002, shortly after the World Cup. When the military regime took power in Burma, I was a university student and participated in the pro-democracy movement there. I was on the run because of my opposition against the military regime. In the meantime, my uncle was captured and killed by the government. My father and my brother were also jailed. Aggravated situations drove me out of the Arakan state, where I grew up. First I escaped to Akyab (now Sittwe) then, to Yangon. There I met a broker who arranged so that I could escape to Thailand. Most brokers were ex-soldiers, so it was not very difficult to cross the border. I lived in Thailand for about 13 years as illegal immigrant. Due to the legal restriction as an undocumented immigrant, I did part-time work, mostly construction work. I was in Japan briefly to advocate refugee rights and democratic movement, and now, here I am.
Q. Considering that you have spent 13 years in Thailand, was there any way for you able to stay there?
As a stateless person there, I would not have been able to obtain citizenship, even though I marry a Thai. Without the citizenship, I could not do anything: opening a business, or getting a job, at least not legally. I did try to contact refugee camps there, but Thai government was mostly ignorant of Rohingya issue. The only viable option for me was to bribe the police so that I could stay in Thailand, and not sent back to Myanmar.
Q. What brought you here in Korea? Was there any particular reason as to why you chose Korea as destination?
I did not originally intend to file for refugee status, because I was always hoping that I could go back to my hometown. I was visiting Japan briefly. Japanese are well aware of Myanmar, probably because of its past experience of war in the country, against England. They even know what types of trees grow, where. Therefore, they are all aware of the presence of ethnic minority refugees in Myanmar, and makes efforts to receive refuge populations from those regions. There is a good presence of Myanmar refugee communities in Japan. It was during my stay in Japan, that one of my acquaintances suggested I go to Korea for a little while to work at NLD (National League for Democracy) as an activist. I actively participated in movement for refugee rights. On weekends, I would often protest in front of the City Hall in support of democratic movement in Myanmar. Due to the prolonged stay in Korea, I became an illegal alien. I filed for refugee status with the assistance of the UNHCR, so that I can receive legal status here in Korea.
Q. What are the realities of the Rohingyans within Myanmar?
The government of Myanmar don't acknowledge that we are Myanmarese. Because we are Arab descent, we do not look 'average' Myanmarese. Our religion, Islam, is also one of the reasons why we aren't considered Myanmarese. When the military regime took the power, and since 1988, we were stripped of our citizenship. Hence, no education or job the Rohingyans. Some people try to receive education in Yangon, of course in secrecy, but if they are discovered by the police, their education becomes invalid. Even when you manage to receive education, you cannot find jobs if you are Rohingyans. Most women tend to stay at home, lots of rape cases occur, by members of the military who visit to recruit males of the household. Rape cases are seldom reported. In addition, the Rohingyans do not have the freedom of movement.
Q. Please tell us about the life of refugees who reside in camps. What about the refugees outside of camps in Bangladesh?
About 20-30 relatives are living in the camps in Bangladesh. Between 2005 and 2006, the military regime of Myanmar, allowed Rohingyans to leave the country. This was when many Rohingyans decided to move Bangladesh. All my relatives living in the camps now left the country around that period. At that time Bangladesh received many refugees. I heard from my relatives of the abject reality to which the Rohingya refugees are subjected.
UNHCR camps are technically managed by Bangladesh camps, as the agency provides its aid money to the government. This type of management attributes to the deteriorated condition of camps. Lots of aid money, say 50%, is generally appropriated by the government. The situation was mostly unknown until BBC and Al Jazeera did investigative reports on the issue. Camps refugees must struggle daily with the realities where they cannot eat properly and cannot prepare for the future in the form of education, etc.
Conditions of camp refugees are far from being desirable, but those outside of the camps must fend for themselves, with no protection whatsoever. Bangladesh and all the neighboring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia are not yet signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Bangladesh government only focus on sending the refugees back, with no will to protect them. This means, no more refugee camps in Bangladesh, which explains why there are more refugees outside the camps, than inside. Most refugees work illegally. If they get sick, they will have to beg for their livelihood. You cannot go see doctors even when you are sick, and one can only dream about school education.
As of now, the UNHCR's interest in the Rohingya refugees significantly diminished than before. Something must be done. Otherwise, there simply can be no future for them.
Q. I would think, there should be more people applying for refugee status in order to guarantee some protection for the Rohingyans. But there are only two Rohingya refugees in Korea and as far as I'm aware, there are no more applicants both in Japan and in Korea. What are the reasons?
It's simple. Most Rohingyans pay brokers to forge their travel documents (i.e. passports). However, due to the technological advance, it is nearly impossible to forge one's travel documents. Also, most of them are just too poor to pay the brokers.
Q. What were some of the challenges you experienced after you submitted your application for refugee status?
The UNHCR was extremely helpful. It was the UNHCR who recommended that I file for refugee status. At the time of my application, there were many NGOs who were willing to help, but their capacity was simply too limited. Making a living was the most difficult, as it wasn't easy to get a job. I filed for my status in 2003 and during my waiting period-2 years-Ministry of Justice was adamant in that I should not be employed. With no living stipends provided, No stipends were provided either. With no living expenses provided, many Koreans did not shed their suspicious that I was here to simply make money. Even when someone introduced me to a part-time job, the Ministry of Justice had to confirm my identity and status in order for me to work at all. Even when I get sick, I couldn't really go see a doctor, because I didn't have medical insurance. It would have cost lots of money. Whenever I get sick, I would pay a visit to the NGOs providing free medical services.
Q. Please describe your life after you received the refugee status.
Once you're guaranteed the status, you are eligible to receive 130,000 ~ 140,000 Won per person, every month. However, if you are employed, you won't be able to receive such assistance. Unfair treatment and discrimination at work places are also big problems. When your boss swears at me, I have no choice but to keep silent, because I need the job to sustain my life here. When it comes to religion, I'm a Muslim and I would have to pray 5 times a day. Things are better that before, most people are still not thrilled when I pray at work. Educating my children is also very difficult. They face various issue, such as language barrier, but it's hard to ask for any help. My son is in Junior High and I want him to receive good education in order for him to be successful in Korea. But my situation does not allow me to spend a lot of money on private education, which worries me. I am now applying for Korean citizenship.
The interview took place on January 31st, right before the New Year's vacation. To our New Year's greeting, Mr. Hakim nostalgically responded that on holidays like this he misses his home country and family members there. All the refugees who cannot return to their home countries probably share the similar sentiment. One day, we hope, all the refugees of the world, including Rohingya refugees would be able to return to their countries where they do not have to worry about human rights violations to which they were previously subjected. One day, every single human being on this globe should be able to enjoy the natural rights granted to them simply because they are human.
* Due to the characteristic of oral testimony, details provided in this interview should not be taken at face value.