FEATURE: Fear fuels Australia dreams of refugees in Malaysia


Mon, Aug 22, 2011 - Page 4

Akhbar and his family fled a perilous existence in Afghanistan for an uncertain life in Malaysia and now dream of a better future in Australia under a controversial refugee swap deal.

If that does not happen, he says, he is willing to risk death to sneak into Australia by boat.

Akhbar, 35, is among thousands of migrants here hoping they will be part of a scheme that would see Australia send 800 illegally arrived boat people to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 registered refugees.

The plan was put on hold by the High Court in Canberra after human rights groups protested. However, Akhbar, who is a registered refugee, is determined to make it to a developed country like Australia even if it means entering illegally via a dangerous sea voyage.

“If we die, no problem. If we arrive in Australia, it’s so good. No more torture,” he said, referring to the precariousness of living illegally in exile

Akhbar’s dreams underline the desperation that motivates refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar to attempt perilous journeys and live like fugitives in the distant hope of making it to Australia.

Speaking in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with seven relatives in Kuala Lumpur, Akhbar — who asked that a pseudonym be used because he feared discovery by authorities — said his family’s difficult journey began four years ago.

Farmers from the Hazara minority, they fled their central Afghan town to escape harassment by armed nomads of the Pashtun majority who would graze their livestock in Akbhar’s fields of wheat and vegetables.

“Every year when the land is growing, they bring their animals ... They eat everything, then we have nothing,” said Akhbar, seated on a colorful Persian carpet.

“If we stay there, maybe we will be killed today or tomorrow,” he said, adding that many of his friends had died at the hands of brigands.

With the hired help of -human-smugglers, he and his family sneaked across the border to Pakistan and then Iran.

A friend there told them of work opportunities in Malaysia. The family, including his parents, wife and daughter, soon arrived there, after spending more than US$6,500 — the bulk of the family savings — on smugglers and air tickets.

However, to Akhbar, the odyssey is unfinished.

They were registered as bona fide refugees by a UN agency in Kuala Lumpur, but that is unrecognized by Malaysia, leaving them vulnerable to harassment and deprived of access to legal employment, education and healthcare.

Several jobs later, Akhbar now works illegally 12 hours a day as a chef’s assistant in an Iranian restaurant, earning 1,200 ringgit (US$400) a month, half of which is spent on rent. He has about two days off a month.

He and his brother were once detained for 17 days after they were caught working in a shop. His wife and two-year-old daughter rarely leave the apartment, fearing harassment from authorities and thugs.

Malaysia has an estimated 2 million illegal migrants from around Asia. More than 94,000 are considered refugees — mostly from Myanmar — including about 500 Afghans.

Many of the Afghans spent years in exile in Iran before coming to Malaysia.

They suffer from a lack of support networks, Sharuna Verghis of Health Equity Initiatives said.

“It’s generations being born and growing in exile without a legal identity ... You can’t live a whole life like that without identity, without meaning, without purpose,” she said. “The sense of hopelessness is so deep and so pervasive.”

Most Afghan refugees in Malaysia are Shiites, looked down upon in a Sunni Muslim country where the Shiite faith is banned.

They also are often wrongly viewed as linked to Afghanistan’s militant Taliban, making it difficult to rent accommodation and find jobs, Verghis said.

Akhbar knows many who have attempted the voyage to Australia, exasperated by a resettlement wait that can take years. Last year, just 8,000 of Malaysia’s registered refugees were resettled elsewhere.

Some of Akhbar’s acquaintances obtained asylum, but others — including families — never made it because their rickety boats sank.

Akhbar stands ready to take that risk if his family is not resettled and if they can scrape up enough money for the illicit passage.

“I wish to go to a place with respect for humans. Then I will be there forever,” he said.