MAUNG fell at least six floors, from his apartment corridor in Kuala Lumpur onto a concrete parking lot. Some say he fell 13 floors, that he’d climbed all the way to the top floor before jumping. He jumped, his housemates insist. It wasn’t an accident.
It all began a few months before. The news spread like wildfire through the community – refugee protection for the ethnic Chin community in Malaysia was coming to an end, and they all had to return to Myanmar.
They had heard rumours of their countrymen, who had their UNHCR refugee cards rescinded, being arrested and deported to Myanmar.
Maung didn’t want to go home. He had fled Myanmar eight years ago in search of safety from civil conflict, and a chance at a new life. But when his own refugee card was due for renewal, he knew he may be deported too.
On the day of his UNHCR card renewal interview, he was too afraid to go. His friends had told him the police may be waiting outside to arrest those who left without a refugee card. So, he stayed home, but grew increasingly nervous.
“He was afraid to take phone calls and told us not to talk too loudly as the police might hear us,” his housemate said. “He wouldn’t even go downstairs for dinner.”
Maung reportedly told his housemates that he thought he would be arrested, now that his UN card has been “confiscated”. They told him to pray and not to worry so much.
In the early hours on June 29, Maung’s housemates heard him move around restlessly in his room, then a sharp clatter. Later, they’d find his phone broken on the floor. They heard him leave the apartment, but didn’t think much of it.
At dawn, Maung’s body was found by a security guard. Media reports suggested he had been drinking, but his friends say it was fear and desperation that killed him.
The definition of a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that definition does not fit the ethnic Chin community anymore.
“We’ve been doing ongoing assessments for the last four years, and it shows a long period of relative peace and stability in the Chin state,” said Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative in Malaysia.
“The conditions that would normally produce refugees no longer exist. People are going about their business of living and practising their religion in a safe and fair way,” he added.
This is the basis for a policy that has come to be known as the “Chin Cessation Policy”. Chin community leaders reported that from 2017, almost all Chin refugees who turned up at the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur to renew their refugee cards have been refused, stripping them of their already limited rights and access to basic services. They would either lose their documentation entirely, or be given “UC letters” – which means their asylum claims are “under consideration”.
Then on June 13, 2018, UNHCR released a statement announcing a process to bring to an end refugee protection for Chin refugees altogether by Dec 31, 2019. According to the statement, Chins in Malaysia as of Aug 1 will now have two options – accept that refugee protections will come to an end and leave when it does, or apply to renew their refugee status. But if their application is denied, refugee status will be revoked immediately.
Essentially, it is understood that there is very little chance for Chins to stay as refugees or asylum seekers in Malaysia beyond the deadline.
The announcement raised alarm among the Chins. They staged a protest in front of the UNHCR office two weeks later, calling the policy discriminatory and non-consultative. They also contest UNHCR’s assessment of Chin state’s stability.
UNHCR was unmoved, saying that the policy change is a global one made in Geneva, not specific to Malaysia.
“We should be welcoming, not condemning the changes in a country that allow people to think about going home,” said Towle in an interview a few days after the protest. “The objective is to get people back to their communities, and the cultures that they know and love.”
But for the Chin community, this seemingly reasonable policy change has deep consequences.
Lalfima invited us into his home, on the second floor of a converted shoplot in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. He introduced us to his wife and children, and we sat on the floor. Then he began to tell us about his home back in Chin state, Myanmar.
“I have never seen any place more comfortable in the world,” his voice cracked. “Here, we have no beautiful hills or a comfortable house. But I can’t go back now.”
It is in this quaint mountain region in west Myanmar – one of the most remote and untouched landscapes in the country – that the Chin refugee crisis started.
The Chin are an ethnically diverse people group whose historical land lies at the intersection of Myanmar, India and Bangladesh’s borders. Like most other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Chins have a long history of conflict with the Burman majority.
Although all ethnic groups worked together to push for independence from the British in 1948, ethno-nationalist movements among the minorities have continued to struggle for autonomy.
The military government would crack down on these movements, often with violence. Civil wars ensued, and civilians are still caught in the crossfire.
“The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) used us as forced labour to send weapons and rations. They said if I didn’t follow them, they would arrest me,” he said. “But I didn’t want to go to jail because I had my wife and children, so we fled to Malaysia.”
Like thousands of other Chins, they endured a risky journey to Malaysia, paying smugglers at every turn.
Once here, they applied for refugee status with UNHCR, and started rebuilding their lives while waiting to be resettled to another country. His family finally safe, Lalfima was hopeful. He was willing to endure working long hours to fend for his family.
“I didn’t feel tired working because UNHCR would bring us to a third country, where it would be safe for us,” he said expectantly.
Then one day in October 2017, during a routine appointment at UNHCR, Lalfima’s family were told that they were no longer recognised as refugees, that it was safe to go back to Myanmar.
“They said we can now go back to our country, but where is their proof?” Lalfima asked. “I asked them for a guarantee, if they could write an endorsed letter, or accompany us to the country, but they said no.”
So Lalfima and his family went back to their shoplot home without their UNHCR cards. The older children immediately quit their jobs, because immigration officers were regularly conducting raids near their workplaces.
Though Malaysia officially views refugees as illegal immigrants, authorities usually respect the UNHCR card and do not detain card-holders. Without its protection, it simply wasn’t worth the risk. They’ve heard stories of Malaysia’s infamous detention centres, rife with allegations of abuse and poor conditions. Now, all they can do is sit at home and wait, hoping for a miracle.
To an outsider, Esther looks just like any other three-year-old. She’s a little small for her age, but she’s just as playful and cheeky as any other toddler. As we spoke to her parents, she ran circles around us, then collapsed playfully on her father’s lap.
Her father, Mana Thang, took her into his arms and continued his story. He told us how Esther was born with severe organ abnormalities, and had to be immediately sent for surgery. Her parents did not get to see her until two weeks later. Over the years, she has needed multiple surgeries and treatments to stay alive.
The medical bill for the first few months alone came up to RM28,000. Luckily, their UNHCR card – which granted them a 50% discount at government health institutions – along with loans from friends, helped them pay off what would have been an impossible debt.
To refugees in Malaysia, the UNHCR card is possibly the most important document they have. Without it, the state views them as undocumented migrants, who have little, if any, fundamental rights.
It grants benefits such as medical discounts, and more importantly, allows refugees to be recognised as people in need of protection. Though Malaysia officially views refugees as illegal immigrants, authorities usually respect the UNHCR card and do not detain cardholders.
But last Sept 4, Mana Thang’s card expired. Like Lalfima, he was told he no longer qualified for refugee status. Without it, Mana Thang and his family face a different sort of fear – that they can now no longer afford to keep their child alive. Due to her condition, Esther has to make frequent trips to the clinic and hospital.
“Without the card, the clinic and hospital have increased the cost, so I cannot afford it anymore,” said Mana Thang. “When we travel to the clinic, we are also scared of meeting the police.”
They were recently told that Esther needed more surgeries to repair the holes in her heart, and that it will cost an additional RM60,000. It’s already an impossible sum, but Mana Thang would still rather take his chances in Malaysia.
“UNHCR said we can now go back to Myanmar, but how will I treat my daughter there? I won’t have money if we go back to Myanmar. Here, even if we don’t have the UN card, I will treat her as much as possible. That’s my plan.”
Lalfima’s 16-year-old son Thangte looks like a Korean pop star,
adores Brazilian footballer Neymar, and speaks perfect English.
"I learned English from Facebook, mostly. I read the jokes, stream something, and chat with friends,” said Thangte. “Working in a restaurant is good for me because I like to communicate with people and learn how they speak.”
He tells us how he attended an informal school for refugees until his family could no longer to afford the school fees. Refugee children do not have access to government schools. To help his family with the bills, he started working at a restaurant in an upscale mall in KL.
Around a third of registered refugees in Malaysia are children below 18. Many of them are either born or raised in Malaysia, and know little of their home country.
Around a third of registered refugees in Malaysia are children below 18. Many of them are either born or raised in Malaysia, and know little of their home country. Since most of them live in urban centres, they are raised on a diet of global pop culture and Malaysianisms.
“We don’t know how long we will still be here in Malaysia,” said Thangte. “I just want the card back, and go to the US to live my life freely, happily. That’s all I hope for right now.”
Over the course of eight months, R.AGE documented the statements of over 50 Chin refugees who have lost their refugee status. All of them expressed dissatisfaction, fear, depression, some even anger.
“Since last year, they have rejected around 6,000 cases, so a lot of people are fed up here. It’s not safe anymore,” said Mung Khat, chairman of the Alliance of Chin Refugees (ACR).
Mung Khat is busier than most these days. His organisation assists Chins, often to secure their release from immigration detention, a spectre which looms over all Chin refugees in Malaysia. Since the UNHCR started witholding cards from Chins, he’s seen an increase in detention cases. And now, he can’t even help anymore. Without the cards, there is no basis to advocate for their release.
“Since June last year (2017), a UNHCR representative announced that they are going to start a five-year plan,” he claimed. “But we are not clear enough (on) what that plan is. They do it by themselves, without inviting the refugee community.”
UNHCR representatives insist that there have been continued and ongoing consultation with community organisations like ACR. Towle points out that a meeting was even held with community leaders immediately after the protest in front of UNHCR’s office.
“I think it’s partly because they don’t like the news. It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” countered Towle. Most of UNHCR’s resources today are being channelled to assisting Rohingya and Syrian refugees, whose situations are patently more desperate.
But beyond the diplomacy, a deep distrust is evident. Chin community leaders repeatedly speak of meetings with UNHCR representatives where they are belittled and given little chance to express their views.
Meanwhile, high-level UNHCR officials privately blame the community leaders for not doing enough to prepare their people for this eventuality. Officials also speak, with resentment, of the 2014 refugee card scam that left UNHCR’s credibility in tatters.
The scam was exposed in an Al Jazeera documentary in 2014, but could have been taking place since 2009, when UNHCR was sending out mobile registration units to reach refugees who lived outside urban centres. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former UNHCR staff explained the scam to our journalists. According to him, UNHCR had asked Chin refugee organisations to compile lists of refugees who had yet to register with UNHCR. Apparently, community leaders started filling up the lists with names of refugees who had yet to arrive, then helped smuggle them to Malaysia. The number of Chins arriving in Malaysia skyrocketed.
At the time, UNHCR was issuing cards through a simplified registration process, which allowed asylum seekers whose claims were still yet to be verified through a full refugee status determination process, to obtain cards. This in itself would lead to a lot of confusion, as these asylum seekers were given the same cards as verified refugees.
Moreover, the simplified procedure was not as rigorous, which he claimed allowed some Chins to assume the identities of people on the list to gain refugee protection in Malaysia and a chance at resettlement to a third country.
A lot of money changed hands, reaching high-level UNHCR staff, according to the source. UN officials from Geneva and Bangkok flew in to interrogate staff suspected of involvement. A spate of resignations followed those investigations, and, according to Towle, UNHCR’s registration systems were thoroughly revamped. Now, only verified refugees receive cards, and the cards have security features that prevent forgery.
Although Towle denies that the cessation policy is linked to the card scam, he recognises the effects of the fallout: “The Chin defrauding (of UNHCR’s registration system) nearly collapsed our resettlement programme, so it is time to have a really hard look at the integrity of our system.
"We can’t keep claimants and asylum seekers in the refugee protection mandate if they don’t need it.”
Towle insists that all three options for Chins – integration, resettlement, and repatriation – are realistic options to be considered moving forward. But activists and members of the refugee community say the reality is quite different.
“It is a bad time to be a refugee in general, but a really bad time for refugees who are losing their protection status and are left with very few options,” said Lilianne Fan, a humanitarian activist whose work includes engaging with governments to advocate for better refugee policies.
“You have a rise of right-wing politics in so many parts of the world, and that has strengthened xenophobic, anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments. “Countries like Canada are becoming sanctuaries, but in the vast majority of countries, there is resistance.”
In the United States, where Chin refugees are primarily resettled to, the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies are thought to be behind the drastic downsizing of its refugee resettlement programme. In the past two years alone, its refugee intake has been halved, resulting in the lowest numbers since the refugee programme was created in 1980.
In Malaysia, out of its approximately 160,000 refugees, only about 2,000 will get to be resettled in 2018, according to UNHCR. If resettlement is a distant possibility, integration is simply unfeasible.
While many refugees have stayed here for years, the government steadfastly continues to view them as illegal immigrants, with no legal access to work and education.
“Refugees cannot be recognised without special legislation, or amendments to relevant laws such as the Immigration Act, Passport Act and even the Federal Constitution,” said Dr Nazira Abdul Rahman, deputy director of the National Security Council’s (NSC) Intelligence and National Crisis Management department. The NSC is the government agency in charge of refugee issues.
“If the government wishes for institutional reform, the NSC will obey, but without compromising national security.”
Even UNHCR is only allowed to work in Malaysia solely on the good graces of the government. As a non-signatory to the UN’s Refugee Convention, Malaysia is not legally obligated to the international community to offer refugees state services or protection.
In government circles, there is a fear that refugees would flood through the borders if Malaysia starts offering formal refugee protections. So instead, it adopts what some analysts call “a policy of not having a policy”.
Of all the options, repatriation is possibly the most feared. When UNHCR cards are rescinded, the reason officials cite is that Chin state is now safe for return – a claim the Chins contest.
UNHCR repeatedly refers to its long-term assessments of the area, but when requested for its reports on the matter, admit there is no written report that they can share. This apparent lack of transparency angers the Chins, who regularly read news of violence and political instability in Chin state and Myanmar in general.
Just a few months before its June 13 announcement, a UN special rapporteur visited Myanmar and released a lengthy report. Although it primarily addressed the growing refugee crisis among the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, the report specifically cited armed conflict in the Paletwa township in Chin state, bordering Rakhine. It also raised questions about the continued persecution and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.
Towle describes these conflicts as “isolated”, and not representative of the general situation. Fan disagrees: “I don’t think Myanmar can be considered a safe country yet, for any ethnic minority. You see massive displacement and poverty in many areas, which is the effect of long-running conflict.”
At press time, the Myanmar embassy had not responded to R.AGE’s request for a comment.
This is not the first time that refugee protections for certain people groups have been phased out. Towle points to the Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s fleeing war. They numbered over 250,000, almost double the current refugee population in Malaysia. Most of them were held in camps on Pulau Bidong, off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. All were repatriated or resettled after conditions in Vietnam improved.
But Vietnamese refugees aside, UNHCR statistics show only 948 refugees have been repatriated since 1995. Most of these were Iraqi and Sri Lankan refugees. Acehnese refugees, who at one point numbered as many as 9,000, were never formally repatriated. Only 10 refugees from Myanmar (of unknown ethnicity) have ever been repatriated, and that was in 1996. There is one way Chins can return – deportation. Under current policies, Chins who no longer have refugee status will be treated like illegal immigrants.
“As the government, we will need to send them back,” said Deputy Home Minister Datuk Mohd Azis Jamman when R.AGE spoke to him about the Chins’ situation.
“That is the standard operating procedure. Since there is as yet no new directive from the government, (our operations) will stay as -is,” he adds, noting that there are ongoing discussions in the Pakatan Harapan government to revise their policy on refugees. “I pity them, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he continued, “But I also pity Malaysians who are in need, some of whom live in far worse conditions.”
Mohd Azis also suggested that international pressure needs to be applied on Myanmar, to resolve the problems that are producing refugees. “It is their problem, they need to accept their own people,” he said.
However, none of the Chins we interviewed expressed a desire to return, even though they expressed fondness and longing for their homeland. More often than not, they expressed fear and desperation.
At Maung’s funeral, a community leader stood and prayed: “The sorrow of death has crossed our path. We do not understand, and we do not think it is the right time for him.”
The congregation sang. Lalfima, who knew Maung before he came to Malaysia, played the keyboard. Outside, flashing lights and traffic sounds filtered through the windows, floating in from the busy tourist street of Jalan Alor, where foreign workers serve foreign tourists.
After the funeral, Maung and his personal belongings were sent back to Myanmar. He is finally home.