The invisible children of Malaysia


“One family torn apart by war is too many.” – is the core message of World Refugee Day in 2013. The focus this year is on impact on families forcibly displaced by war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has launched a campaign to document the refugee families and the most important thing they brought with them when they fled their homes. For a lot of Burmese refugee children living in Malaysia, the most important thing they brought with them when they fled Burma would be the hope for a better future in a foreign land.

According to the latest figures by UNHCR, There are around 82,000 Burmese refugees living in Malaysia, making is the largest population by numbers in the country. The Malaysian government does not recognize the fundamental rights of these refugees and the Malaysian immigration authorities and the people’s vigilante group called RELA has been complicit in violating the human rights in the form of raids, forceful detentions, human trafficking and torture.
The Burmese refugee children in particular face serious security threats and mostly live within the confines of their homes due to a constant fear of being abused at the hands of the Malaysian authorities. They have little freedom to venture out on the streets on their own, avail formal education and get proper jobs in the future. By not recognizing and addressing the plight of the Burmese refugee children, the Malaysian government is making them invisible from the outside world.
Karen Zusman is an independent journalist and a human rights activist. In 2009, she scripted and produced the documentary, Please Don’t Say My Name: The Plight of Burmese Refugees in Malaysia and her recent work includes reporting for the Pulitzer Centre on crisis reporting in Malaysia. On World Refugee Day, Human Dialogue interviewed her to understand the conditions in which the Burmese refugee children survive in Malaysia and what the future holds for them.

Karen Zusman

Karen Zusman


According to the latest UNHCR figures, only 40% of the refugee children in Malaysia have access to education. What are the challenges that these children face in order to receive education when they cannot even get out of their homes in the fear of being caught by the police?
The Burmese refugee children’s only hope of education is through private means in Malaysia. Usually the ethnic communities from which they belong to i.e., Chin, Mon, Karen, Kachin, Shan, Arakenese, Rohingya each provide some very basic schooling via their own community members and volunteers. It is entirely donation-based and it is offered inside the community shelter so the children do not have to go outside for it. In the case of Rohingya refugee children, some of them live far from city centers and community centers.  Hence they have no hope for education and many of these children resort to begging on the streets.

Are most of the Burmese refugees in Malaysia from the Rohingya community?
Although there are great numbers of Rohingya children in Malaysia, many of their families have been there for generations. So, they are in a different category than the more recent refugees from Burma. Although given the situation in Burma the last year, I’m sure these numbers of new Rohingya refugees has grown. However, my understand is that the Rohingya, unlike the other refugees, are not eligible for resettlement as the other refugees are. Most of the refugee children I encountered in Malaysia were from the other ethnic groups in Burma, which are there in great numbers. Perhaps close to 100,000. Some of the ethnic groups are: Chin, Mon, Arakanese, Kachin, Karen, and Shan. All the Burmese refugee children I have spoken with said that they would very much like to return to Burma like in this story of a girl I interviewed in 2010. It’s heartbreaking.

How vulnerable are the Burmese refugee children to human trafficking and sex trade? 
They are quite vulnerable. Especially if they are outside begging or unaccompanied, they can be tricked by traffickers into thinking they have a job for them, or a safe place to stay. It’s a very dire situation. The police, the immigration authorities and the RELA, an officially-sanctioned vigilante group are all profiting from the business of trafficking. UNHCR cards are of no help if these children are caught by the corrupt officials or traffickers. All their paperwork and identity proof is destroyed making them completely stateless and untraceable by their families or agencies seeking to rescue them.

In most of your reports you have mentioned that the UNHCR cards for the Burmese refugees are of little help to get any kind of support and employment in Malaysia. Why?
This is because Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention that protects the rights of refugees. This means that the UNHCR is in Kuala Lumpur by invitation and Malaysian officials do not need to recognize their status. In my work, I have pushed hard for the international community to pressure Malaysia to sign the Convention. Until they do, it seems that the UNHCR can only organize the process of resettlement to a third country–but cannot protect.  In my experience, the UNHCR is terribly impotent in helping with refugee’s fundamental rights while living in Malaysia. A very typical story is this one of Mary, a 15-year old girl with a UNHCR card whom I interviewed. Mary was chased, arrested and abused in detention. It’s quite common for the officials to disregard the cards.

How common is child labour amongst the Burmese refugee children living in Malaysia?
Given the fear and danger of arrest, a lot of the children are kept inside and do not work. But that is not to say it doesn’t happen. When it happens, the worst part is that the kids can be picked up by Malaysian police and detained indefinitely in terrible conditions or they can be picked up by traffickers. Trafficking is an extremely dangerous situation for these children as well as the lamentable act of child labor in itself. The children that have already been picked up by traffickers or have been bonded into indentured servitude or slave labor by desperate family members have little hope for getting out from underneath this condition. There is no one to advocate for them. Sometimes they are locked away in factories, brothels or on fishing boats. They are invisible. In the rare instance where they are rescued, they are hidden away in shelters with no access for education. Thus, they grow up and leave the shelter nearly as vulnerable as they were when they were trafficked. During my stay in Kuala Lampur, I compiled this video  based on the real accounts of stateless children living there.

Does the UNHCR card entitle these kids to health benefits? If not then what are the health care facilities that the kids can avail and what are the material costs involved?
The UNHCR does have at least one clinic the refugees can go to and get a discounted rate for medical treatment but this “discount” is still an exorbitantly higher rate than what it charges the Malaysian nationals. Hence many refugee parents cannot afford the treatment. There is no money or compensation given for transport, hygiene, etc and most of these refugees live on meager donations they get from the various ethnic community centers in Malaysia.

What kind of work are the NGOs working on children’s rights doing in Malaysia for the Burmese refugee children?
There are a few NGOs in Malaysia who work quite hard towards providing education and shelter to the Burmese community children. Most of them are community led and are often overstretched, understaffed and have very few resources to raise money–so the actual offerings are very minimal at best. International NGOs have started taking interest in the plight of these children and are slowly pressuring the Malaysian government for a policy level change on refugee issues. It is rather unfortunate that the condition of Burmese refugee children is underreported in the Malaysian media. I have tried to bring the story of Burmese refugee children in the international media but in country, the Malaysian media is heavily censored by the government and since the state authorities and police officials are a part of the human rights violations inflicted upon the refugee children, the story gets little attention.

According to a recent paper by Human Rights Watch, the Border guard forces in Burma are recruiting child-soldiers with limited UN access in the areas. Have you encountered any child-soldiers from Burma in Malaysia?
Yes, I worked with two different boys on two separate stories who had been recruited by the Burmese army inside of Burma and they had escaped to Malaysia. I met them while covering a different story–so to say, I wasn’t looking for them. So the number is probably rather high. Sadly it is still going on. There are many boys who cross over the border to escape the forced recruitment in the Burmese army.

What are your recommendations for the Malaysian government to integrate the Burmese refugee children into the society and ensure their rights are met with?
First of all, Malaysia is a member of the United Nations Council on Human Rights. So the Malaysian government must adopt protections for human rights of refugees as outlined in the UN Geneva Convention, 1951 and fully adopt its principals. They are also signatory to the convention on children’s rights. So it only makes sense that they sign the convention that would protect refugee children. Secondly, the raids by RELA, which lead to ill-treatment of the refugee children should be stopped. Malaysia must stop disregarding the issue as it is extremely difficult for these children to integrate into the mainstream society once they have spent years locked up indoors. The future chances of survival for the Burmese refugee children are dismal in Malaysia even as many of them wait for resettlement in a third country.

Interviewed by Pari Trivedi for Human Dialogue.
Photo Courtesy: Karen Zusman