Myanmar + 1 more

Refugee voices: Burmese Karen woman in Malaysia

The worst offensive in ten years by the Burmese military has displaced several thousand people in eastern Burma's Karen State. The majority of refugees who flee the conflict in eastern Burma cross the border into Thailand. However, many also pay agents to smuggle them to Malaysia, where they are told that there are better work opportunities than in Thailand. Refugees International recently visited Malaysia and found that the government continues to target Burmese refugees and asylum seekers as illegal migrants. Refugees in Malaysia live in constant fear of arrest, detention, and deportation by immigration authorities. Below is the interview of one Burmese Karen woman who like many in her situation lacks adequate protection and access to healthcare.

Naw Lah [not her real name] is a 37-year-old Burmese Karen woman. She is six months pregnant and has been living in Malaysia for almost two months. Nah Law and her family were farmers in eastern Burma. They were forced to flee their village after her brother was arrested for refusing to work as forced labor for the Burmese military. When her father returned to the village to assist her brother, the family was accused of being part of the Karen rebellion and since then they have not been able to return home. Her family has been living in the jungle on the Burma side of the Thai-Burma border for five years. When they fled their village, they did not know anyone at the border and so they did not go to one of the more formalized displacement camps.

In early 2007, Naw Lah and her husband decided to cross the border into Thailand in order to find work. Her husband eventually found an agent who promised to find him a job in exchange for payment. Instead the agent took her husband's money and sold him into forced labor. Naw Lah does not know where her husband is. She faced many difficulties herself in finding work in Thailand. After waiting in vain for two months hoping that her husband would return, a local Karen group gave her a contact who agreed to smuggle her to Malaysia.

Naw Lah paid the agent 9,000 Thai Baht or around 300 USD. Since she had only managed to save a little money from working odd jobs in Thailand, she had to borrow the rest of the payment from friends. Naw Lah was the only woman among a group of 10 people. She was four months pregnant at the time of the journey.

The agent who transported Naw Lah and the others was ethnic Burmese. The first night of the trip the group walked from 11 pm to 4 am to avoid being caught by the police. Although she was not badly mistreated by the agent, he did yell at her if she walked too slowly. However, during the journey she was always more afraid of the police than of the agent. After walking the first night, the group then traveled by car. To fit everyone in, some were forced to ride hidden in the trunk. They drove during the night, and during the day they hid in abandoned construction sites. After two days the group reached Malaysia.

Naw Lah now lives with friends in Kuala Lumpur. She is too frightened of being arrested to find work. The area where she is staying is not safe for a foreigner without any documents. The People's Volunteer Corps or RELA, civilian volunteers who are authorized by the Government of Malaysia to arrest illegal migrants, conducts frequent raids where refugees and asylum seekers are rounded up as well.

Even though she is six months pregnant, Naw Lah has not been to see a doctor in Malaysia because she is scared of being arrested. She has heard the reports of refugee women who have been put in detention after going to the hospital. Around the time that Naw Lah arrived in Kuala Lumpur, several ethnic Burmese women who had given birth and gone to register their babies with the local registration department were arrested and put into detention with their children because they did not have the proper documents. Naw Lah did try to visit one of the local clinics run by a non-governmental organization, but it was closed when she went and she has yet to go back.

Naw Lah has been to see the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur to ask for assistance. However UNHCR staff told her that its policy is to wait until a woman's seventh month to issue the registration letter needed to give birth in the hospital without being arrested, unless it is a serious medical case.

Foreigners, including refugees like Naw Lah, must pay double the hospital fees of local Malaysians. With a UNHCR registration letter, Naw Lah will receive a 50 percent discount, but she is still very concerned about how she will pay for the remainder of the medical costs when she goes to give birth. Since she is not working, she cannot save any money. She will most likely have to borrow money from friends. If she does not receive the letter from UNHCR, Naw Lah thinks her only option will be to give birth by herself in the shelter where she is staying. All of friends are usually out working and it will be difficult for them care for her.

Naw Lah has a 6-year-old daughter who is still living with her parents in the jungle on the Thai-Burma border. Her family in Burma does not know that she is now in Malaysia, or that her husband was sold into forced labor by agents. She has no way of contacting them and she is very concerned about this.

Naw Lah would like her family to join her in Malaysia. Despite the fear of arrest, she thinks that the situation would be better for them here. Her daughter does not have access to any education in the jungle where they are hiding. If her family is able to join her in Malaysia, she eventually hopes that they can all be resettled to a third country. Naw Lah told Refugees International, "The most important thing to me is my children."

Camilla Olson assessed the situation for Burmese in Malaysia in April.