‘Stuck’: Hope fades for refugees in Malaysia as US closes door

The US has slashed the number of refugees it now accepts for resettlement and many are left with nowhere to go.

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Saw Kaw Lar in the stairwell of the refugee community centre where he volunteers in Kuala Lumpur. The group offers education, and supports refugees when they are detained or face a medical emergency [Emily Fishbein/Al Jazeera]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – In December, Saw Kaw Lar received an unexpected call.

“Your case for going to America was withdrawn,” the refugee from Myanmar’s Karen minority recalled hearing. “If there are other countries for you, we will tell you.”

In an instant, his 10-year journey towards resettlement in the United States and his dream of a new life were over.

The call was from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the organisation tasked with supporting the millions of people forced to flee their home countries because of persecution, war or violence.

UNHCR considers resettlement to a third country such as the United States the last of three long-term solutions; to be considered only when voluntary repatriation or integration into the country to which the refugees have fled are impossible. Fewer than one percent of people recognised by the UNHCR as refugees are resettled to a third country each year.

For decades, the US took more refugees for resettlement each year than any other country, but under the Donald Trump administration, this is no longer the case, and for people from Myanmar, the situation was compounded on January 31 when Trump’s travel ban was extended to six more countries, including the Southeast Asian nation.

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Refugees from Myanmar’s Mon ethnic minority celebrate Mon National Day in February in Kuala Lumpur. [Emily Fishbein/Al Jazeera]

Between 2002 and 2017, 169,000 refugees from Myanmar resettled in the US, making them the largest group by nationality.

No longer welcome

Although refugees are exempted from the executive order, which went into effect on February 21 and bars the entry of Myanmar nationals into the US as immigrants, it has added to a sense among refugees that they are no longer welcome.

The order may also affect the ability of naturalised refugees to apply for residence for family members overseas, according to Danielle Grigsby, Interim Director of the Refugee Council USA.

“While refugees aren’t directly impacted [by the order], there has been a correlation between the bans coming down and a precipitous dip in arrivals from people in these regions,” she said. “The current administration is using all mechanisms available to stop the flow of people needing protection and chip away at the refugee resettlement programme until it’s just barely hanging on.”

Malaysia has long been a transit hub for refugees even though it is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and those who flee to the country risk detention as ‘illegal’ migrants.

As of December 2019, of the nearly 180,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, more than 150,000 were from Myanmar. This number does not include the undocumented or those with pending applications.

My life is gone

by Mohammad Rafiq, Rohingya refugee in Malaysia

Official numbers of refugees in the pipeline for US resettlement are not publicly available but refugee community leaders estimate that more than 10,000 refugees from Myanmar are in the pipeline for US resettlement through Malaysia.

Like Saw Kaw Lar, many began the process more than 10 years ago. The refugee organisation, which preferred to remain anonymous for fear of affecting resettlement cases, said that between November and January, roughly 100 refugees received phone calls from UNHCR, informing them that their cases were withdrawn from US resettlement, without further explanation. UNHCR did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Cancelling cases in the pipeline “will deeply affect the refugee community and create huge complexity in the near future,” the group of refugee community leaders said.

Worldwide, 70 million people remain forcibly displaced, including asylum seekers, refugees, and those within their countries’ borders. In 2019, of 1.4 million refugees estimated to be in urgent need of resettlement, less than 70,000 got the chance.

Life on the margins

Refugees have little protection under Malaysian law although the Pakatan Harapan government that collapsed last month had introduced measures to allow access to schooling and healthcare.

Those awaiting UNHCR interviews, sometimes for years, are particularly vulnerable to arrest, detention and extortion, and there are few avenues for legal employment. Many refugees rely heavily on voluntary services provided by their own communities.

The decision of whether to accept refugees submitted by UNHCR for resettlement lies with destination countries.

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Refugees from Myanmar make up most of the nearly 180,000 refugees in Malaysia, but with the US closing the door on resettlement many have few options to start their lives anew. [Emily Fishbein/Al Jazeera]

Between 2005 and 2017, UNHCR Malaysia submitted nearly 118,000 resettlement applications, of which 86 percent were to the United States.

In Barack Obama’s last year in office, he set the refugee arrival ceiling for Fiscal Year 2017 at 110,000. In Fiscal Year 2018, Trump slashed that number to 30,000 – the lowest ceiling set by any president since the US began its formal refugee resettlement programme in 1980. In 2019, it was set at 18,000.

Salai H. Cung Hnin, from Myanmar’s Chin minority, said, “Being a refugee is not a choice. We just want to live peacefully. If we resettle to the United States, we will show love and kindness towards others.”

For Cung Hnin, who arrived in Malaysia in 2011 and has been in the US resettlement pipeline since 2016, questions linger about whether he will ever go.

After completing an interview with the Resettlement Support Center – one in a series of vetting interviews – in August 2018, he was told to wait three months for his next interview with the Department of Homeland Security.

“Until now I have sent a lot of inquiry letters, but no progress,” said Cung Hnin. “We are just stuck in this transit country, feeling desperate and hopeless for the future.”

Few alternatives

Mohammad Rafiq, a Rohingya refugee who reached Malaysia by boat in 2007 and has completed two interviews towards US resettlement, also wonders about his chances.

“My life is gone,” said Rafiq, who struggles to support his family through his earnings as a grass cutter and worries about his two children’s education. “I told [the interviewers] about the suffering and hardship I face. It’s up to them whether to take me or not.”

The US is one of seven countries accepting refugees from Malaysia, but as the chances of resettlement there diminish, some are staking their hopes on other countries.

“Now the American government isn’t giving us the opportunity [to resettle],” said Saw Kaw Lar. “If I don’t go to America, I pray to God that I can go to another country.”

The organisation of refugee leaders said they were informed by UNHCR that seven countries accept refugees referred for third-country resettlement from Malaysia – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.

However, many people are reluctant to withdraw their applications for US resettlement in order to apply to another country, because there is so little information about whether their application would be accepted or how long the process would take. Those who already have spouses or family members resettled in the US also worry about whether or when they will reconnect.

Despite fading hopes, Cung Hnin and his church community continue to pray.

“During the 2016 elections, we prayed for [Trump] to be a good person and bring peace to the world,” he said.

“Now, he doesn’t accept a lot of refugees and I am stuck in this country, but we still pray for the United States.”

Source: Al Jazeera