“We are surviving without a dream” Kachin refugees in Kuala Lumpur

Helen Mears, Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Keeper of World Art, reports from a recent trip to Malaysia undertaken as part of her doctoral research at the University of Brighton into the use of heritage amongst overseas Kachin communities. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is the caretaker of a rare collection of photographs and textiles relating to the Kachin minority in northern Myanmar.

An estimated 1,500 Kachin asylum seekers and refugees live in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia. Displaced by conflict, especially that which erupted following the breakdown of a ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar government and Kachin Independence Organization in 2011, most undertook dangerous journeys to the city in pursuit of safety and, hopefully, the opportunity of resettlement in a third country. In KL they joined one of the world’s largest urban refugee populations.

Kachin youth attend an English language class run by a volunteer teacher. The class starts at 11pm to accommodate those in employment.
Kachin youth attend an English language class run by a volunteer teacher. The class starts at 11pm to accommodate those in employment.

Registration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the organisation’s KL office provides little protection to refugees in Malaysia. Malaysia is neither a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol and lacks a legislative and policy framework for refugees. Asylum seekers and refugees are treated as illegal migrants and are vulnerable to arrest, extortion and detention. If arrested and unable to pay the fine levied refugees run the risk of being sent to one of the country’s twelve immigration detention depots. Conditions at some of these have been described as amongst the worst in the world.

My doctoral research at the University of Brighton on overseas Kachin communities led me to KL where a third country resettlement programme run by the UNHCR has seen several thousand Kachins, and members of other Myanmar ethnic groups, resettled in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and northern Europe. During my stay I interviewed Kachin asylum seekers and refugees. Like others of similar status in Malaysia they are prohibited from working and from accessing state healthcare and their children are denied access to government-funded public schools. Most refugees, inevitably, have to work to survive. Their employment choices are limited to insecure and low-paid jobs in restaurants, retail and construction where they work under the constant threat of arrest. A lack of recourse to legal protection also leaves refugees vulnerable to becoming victims of crime and abuse.

Lack of legal recognition not only brings the immediate danger of arrest, extortion and detention. It also is life-inhibiting in other ways, including by preventing refugee access to the Internet, to mobile phones and to banking facilities. For most Kachin refugees the lack of access to education is amongst the greatest of their frustrations, making their time in the city feel ‘meaningless’. Whilst the Kachin community runs two learning centres for refugee children, they are dependent on the efforts of volunteer teachers and, without access to funds, no opportunities for tertiary education exist in KL.

Like all Myanmar refugees in Malaysia, the Kachin must endure a cruel waiting game. UNHCR-administrated resettlement places have dried up for all but the most vulnerable and, at this point, the UNHCR’s other two durable solutions for refugees – local integration or voluntary repatriation – remain unviable; the lack of legal recognition and protection preventing the former and the ongoing conflict in the Kachin region the latter. Even the registration of asylum seekers and refugees can take several years as the UNHCR is facing a significant administrative backlog. 800 Kachin people are still waiting for a UNHCR identity card.

While the situation facing Kachin refugees in KL is perhaps less dire than that facing the near 100,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) living near the Myanmar-China border, both communities have suffered from a lack of international attention. Conditions for both are also worsening, as the already limited international aid directed to the IDPs reduces to a trickle and Malaysia adopts new legislation which is likely to make life even more unbearable for refugees seeking its protection. While Kachin-led civil society organisations actively campaign for greater awareness around the challenges currently facing Kachin people, international agencies must do more than just watch and wait.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art

Helen’s visit to Malaysia was generously funded by the University of Brighton’s College of Arts and Humanities and supported by the Malaysia Kachin Baptist Church (MKBC). She is currently exploring the viability of establishing an educational fund to support Kachin refugees in Malaysia. Contact her (h.mears@brighton.ac.uk) for more information.