Refugees in Malaysia's jungle camps face harsh life, fear crackdown
Desperate to survive, many of the asylum seekers who had fled persecution in their own countries found illegal work on the construction sites of Putra Jaya just like thousands of illegal migrants. Both groups live in the jungle, often sharing camps. There's a certain safety in numbers. But for the authorities, both groups are categorised as illegal migrants.
It's just a short walk through the undergrowth from the last row of newly-built houses into the fringes of the hilly jungle. Clambering up the hillside and hidden amongst the trees are the roughly-constructed makeshift shelters that the asylum seekers call home. But grim reminders of their precarious and fearful existence are clearly visible.
"See those sandals and shirts," said Simon, a Chin refugee leading me through the camp and pointing into a gully. "We kick them off so we can run faster when the police raid the camp. And we throw off our shirts so the police can't catch us by the collar," he added. Sandals and torn shirts are scattered along the camp's pathways and stairways, cut into the red clay. Nearby are the ashes and scorched earth of huts that were burnt during a raid. Not for the first time.
An estimated 500 Chins an ethnic minority from Myanmar live in Putra Jaya's hidden jungle camps. Some of them have been there for more than seven years. Along with the Chins are the Rohingyas, also from Myanmar, and asylum seekers from Aceh. Many of them are too scared to make the journey into the capital of Kuala Lumpur to register with UNHCR. They risk being picked up by the authorities and thrown into detention. Responding to their well-founded fears, UNHCR is planning to send mobile teams to the jungle to register the asylum seekers, so they have some protection from police raids and from being put in detention.
"Fundamentally, the asylum seekers are considered by the government as illegal migrants, and there are some of those. We have to sift out those people who are in need of international protection and thus of concern to us, and do this in a low-key manner," said UNHCR's Representative in Malaysia, Volker Turk.
An impending government crackdown on illegal migrants has given new urgency to registering the jungle-dwelling asylum seekers.
"During the last law enforcement operation, they burnt all the huts, our church, dented all our cooking pots and threw away all our rice," one Chin asylum seeker who preferred to remain nameless said, as he cut vegetables for the shared evening meal.
There's solidarity in the Chin jungle camp. Those who are working share their money and food with others who are currently out of a job. But every day, each asylum seeker faces great insecurity.
The journey to the construction sites takes about an hour on foot, along the palm tree-lined roads, where water buffaloes graze on the median strip. But it's here that the authorities wait for the refugees and detain them, often after a heart-thumping chase that can occasionally end in death.
"There's no way out for us. The jungle is still the safest place," said another male Chin asylum seeker. All the Chin camp residents are men. This is no place for a woman, they say.
"In Myanmar, things are much more serious than in this place. That's why we're staying here. Even if the authorities raid two or three times in one year, I think it's better than Myanmar," said a middle-aged community leader.
The constant insecurity torments the refugees.
"At night we are unable to sleep in peace because we're scared of the police operations and the robbers. The robbers shout they are the police and when we run away, they steal all our clothes and our materials," said the camp leader, shaking his head at the injustice of it all.
The jungle dwellers have precious little huts constructed from poles cut from the jungle and plastic sheeting, a few cooking pots and well-worn clothing.
Flight from the police and the robbers is also a risky business, particularly when the monsoon rains make conditions underfoot treacherous.
"When we run away and someone falls down and breaks a leg, we don't dare take them to a hospital. We have to wait until after the operation and find someone who speaks a little English to go to the clinic and ask for medicines. Otherwise, we take leaves and do it all ourselves," said a Chin.
The Malaysian government's recent declaration that they would give temporary stay permits to refugees from Myanmar's Muslim ethnic minority group was a welcome move towards improving the plight of 10,000 Rohingya refugees in the country. But there are another 18,000 refugees and asylum seekers whose status with the government is yet unclear.
"We have no hope for the future. If the politics in our country were good, we'd go back home. The one hope in our mind is UNHCR and if we can be resettled to another country where we will be better off and more comfortable ... otherwise our life cycle will be finished in this place," said the camp leader sadly.
By Jennifer Pagonis
In Putra Jaya