MEDIA STATEMENT FROM HEALTH EQUITY INITIATIVES:
The Realities of Refugees and Asylum Seekers
from Burma in Malaysia
Malaysia is currently host to one of the largest refugee and asylum seeker populations in Asia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 90,000 registered refugees in the country. Both UNHCR and the refugee communities estimate that the actual number of refugees is much higher, given that thousands have yet to be registered. 92% are Burmese who escaped persecution in Burma, where political turmoil and ruthless military domination have persisted for decades. However, Malaysia has continued to refuse to recognise them as refugees.
Forced labor and human trafficking are serious concerns for this community. Moreover, without the protection that legal status provides, refugees and asylum seekers are afraid to come forward to authorities because they fear arrest and detention. At one time, Malaysian immigration officials were even implicated in such activities: it was found that they had trafficked refugees from Burma up to the Malaysia-Thai border where they were handed over to human smugglers/traffickers who held them for ransom. Those who could not pay were sold to Thai fishermen, brothels or private owners.
Mental health problems among refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are a serious concern. Health Equity Initiatives’ (HEI) analysis of the scores of 578 refugees and asylum seekers who were screened in April and May 2011 using the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales 21 (DASS21) indicated that 19.9% experienced either moderate, severe or extremely severe Stress. Almost half (48%) experienced either moderate, severe or extremely severe Anxiety, and 38% experienced either moderate, severe or extremely severe Depression. An earlier analysis of HEI’s mental health clients showed that 22% presented with symptoms that required psychiatric care. A separate study conducted by HEI revealed that, among those with a high level of need for psychosocial services, 77.1% reported they could not afford the services.
In principle, government hospitals in Malaysia are open and available to refugees and asylum seekers, but evidence collected by HEI shows that refugees and asylum seekers experience substantial barriers accessing health care in Malaysia.
Language differences and a lack of information about health services also impact refugees’ ability to access services. Refugees have also cited the poor quality of treatment and discrimination they experience at both public and private health facilities as reasons for not seeking medical treatment when needed. Evidence also showed that refugees delayed seeking medical treatment until the situation became serious, thereby risking their health and increasing their need for hospitalization.
By making the public aware of research on forced labor in Malaysia, HEI wishes to highlight its prevalence. Although almost 9.5 million people are trapped in forced labor in the Asia-Pacific region, the phenomenon of forced labor is not well understood in our societies. Frequently, forced labor operates in a manner closely connected with local context and is therefore less noticeable for most members of that society. In Malaysia, a combination of shortcomings in both immigration and labor laws has created dangerous circumstances, exposing this vulnerable population to forced labor.
The graveness of the situation cannot be underemphasized. In Malaysia, practices of forced labor can last for years without being detected. Survivors rarely report their experience for a variety of reasons: they don’t know where to go; they are too afraid to speak out; they fear deportation or imprisonment; or they are simply resigned to accept forced labor as a norm rather than a violation of their fundamental human rights. One man HEI interviewed said simply, “I can’t sit around waiting for the good one. I don’t want to wait for the job.” Basic survival - the need for food and shelter for themselves and their families - has left them with little choice but to take up dismal jobs, often entering into situations of forced labor fully aware of the risks and dangers.
Through our campaign we are seeking to shed light on their experience, and to understand their plight as persons - not just as faceless workers. Our ignorance of forced labor situations has undoubtedly contributed to the continuation of these practices. This is why public awareness is essential. We hope that the witness accounts will show that allowing refugees and asylum seekers to work legally will protect them, improve their well-being, and demonstrate that the recognition of their status as refugees will make a whole world of difference.
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