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Impossible choices for refugees

Change Noor’s name – he has done so himself – to another.  Make it Hashim, or Ishmael.  The names change but the stories have similar strands.  Yet the threads that tie the stories together are not rich in hue: golds, emeralds, reds, weaving together a beautiful coat of colour.  They are more like the clear and tough fishing line one might use, out of desperation, to sew together a raw and open wound torn into the flesh by blow after blow from the butt of a pistol, or cut into skin and muscle by the blade of a knife, sure to leave an unsightly scar.

Noor was fortunate enough to have money demanded of him by members of a crime syndicate when he was sold by a trafficker on the Thai border.  He had been rounded up during a raid, put in a Malaysian detention centre holding illegal migrants after his arrest, and sat in the jungle heat for weeks. 

Some of the other men, like him sold to the syndicate, weren’t so lucky.  Had no money at all.  And after phone calls to what friends they had in Malaysia, or back home in Burma, or to Bangladesh, when they still were unable to come up with funds – RM 1600, about 500 USD, to pay the men who now owned them for freedom – the pistol whipping, the cutting, the punches and bruising ensued.  But no matter how hard they punched, their opened veins would not produce the funds.  If you prick a refugee, does he not bleed blood?  Their screams will never produce gold or other precious metals.  If it were so, what a commodity their suffering.


Described as “a siren call [that] will… forever take us from our complacency to the plight of so many lost, lonely and hurting”

Photographs by Jonathan Kwok
Stories by Andrew Kooman
Reflections by Melanie Hurlbut

with a Foreword by Ambassador Dato’ Dennis Ignatius Former High Commissioner of Malaysia to Canada


Noor had RM 2000, so he could buy his freedom from the syndicate, and passage back into Malaysia.  With the other RM 400 he bought some food for the men he was leaving behind, men who were sure to be sent to remote fishing communities to work on boats, perhaps never to return.

He had already paid the money and was waiting in the makeshift camp the traffickers assembled near the border, waiting to enter Malaysia at night secretly.  But that night the police raided. Noor ran like everyone else, in one of a thousand directions, and escaped.  Hid away.  When it was safe, he found his own way back into the country.  Came to Penang and the jungle on whose fringes we spoke.

* * *

My arrival in the country was a much different flight.  Over land and sea in a jet.  My legs occasionally cramped I found it difficult to sleep over the ten hour flight before I slept the night in a hotel for my layover in Taipei, before I made the final flight to Malaysia. Upon arrival in Penang, I handed my Canadian-issued passport to the smiling woman at the Immigration desk who welcomed me into the country after we chatted about local food.  No bribes, no sneaking, no ducking or running through thick jungle at night.  And yet my travels took their own amount of faith.  Traveling to a foreign country for an extended period of time, a habit from which I hope to never recover, requires much from the traveler, no matter who they are and where they go: time, money, separations from, preparations.

But to leave your country running, without documentation?  Travel out of your country and suddenly the passport you so easily hide away in the drawer in your room and forget about, thinking nothing of its security in the insulated walls of your carpeted home where you eat and drink, make love, watch TV, the passport you have to search for when you’re booking your plane ticket online, muttering in frustration, suddenly that passport is everything.  You know its whereabouts at all times.  It gets zipped in hidden pockets, tethered round your neck, pressed against your skin.  It is connected to you and at all times is within hand’s reach.  Leashed.


When you are away you are where you are from.  The small little book, with the alpha-numeric code above that horrid photograph printed on the glossy page is your identity.  You are your passport.  And you will either receive the stamp of approval or you will not.

To be without passport, without documentation is tantamount to being without identity.  This is the jagged little pill the fifteen million refugees worldwide (and counting) have to swallow.  The stunning slap against the skin tens of thousands of refugees in Malaysia, unlucky enough to be where they are from, without papers, feel when they arrive in the country, their safe haven, only to discover they are granted no official status.


The reality of Rohingya refugees is particularly dire, the story of a national identity stolen by those who ruthlessly wield power.  When it came to rule in 1974, the military junta in Burma denied citizenship to the Rohingya and declared them stateless.  Only, the declaration was no empty word, no abstract initiative set forth by a democratic figurehead whose impact or reach could not be quantified.  The brutal dictates of the junta made incarnate their words with radical policies that have affected the Rohingya for 30 years.   As a result scores of Rohingya have fled the country.  With taxes on most goods and services, a ban of the Rohingya language, confiscation of land and property, forced labor, and systematic religious persecution it’s no wonder.

Worse yet is the violence.  Summary executions, torture, and systematic rape widely reported by organizations like Amnesty International led to waves of Rohingya fleeing the country.  A campaign of concentrated violence saw an estimated 250,000 Rohingya flee to neighboring Bangladesh during 1991 – 1992 alone. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are upwards of 730,000 stateless persons, mostly Rohingya, and some estimate there are 1.5 million Rohingya refugees displaced outside Burma’s borders.

When the country you’ve lived your whole life – for generations – suddenly denies you are its son, strips you of your dignity but also confiscates any legal documentation of your national identity and then flushes you like refuse from its borders, there are sure to be challenges ahead.  For one, you can’t book a plane ticket to safer lands, layover in Taipei, or engage in small talk with a customs agents about local cuisine.

The realities of extortion, bribery, imprisonment, and rape do not only linger as horrific memories of once terrible times, but become omens of the future, signposts in a unending journey of misery more likely to appear on the horizon than if you have a stamped, current passport, unflattering photograph and all.

And the question about where to go to, what border to cross, is no matter to take lightly either.  Want to risk frequent extortion, malnutrition, and squalor living conditions that may require you to sell your body in order to get food?  Head to Bangladesh to a refugee camp.  Want to risk a trip over water at night in a rickety boat with the possibility that the navy will scoop you from the sea and force you to return to the very country you flee as a refugee?  Go to Thailand.  Such future sufferings aren’t the rule, but neither are they the exception.

Many Rohingya have also fled to Malaysia where, like Noor, they hide in the jungle, work for months as labourers whose bosses don’t pay up, simply because they know the undocumented migrants can make no case against them in a court of law.  Having not signed the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Malaysian government grants no legal status to legitimate refugees like the Rohingya when they arrive in Malaysia.  An unpaying boss can simply say, “You shouldn’t have been here in the first place.”  With no legal status, a trip to Malaysia means the possibility of arrest, detention, and deportation, which is the government’s official policy toward all undocumented migrants.

Choosing a new country, for many refugees, might seem a dangerous game of roulette.  But most often the violence they might face in their country of refuge is perpetrated by scoundrels and is not endorsed by the state.  And there are ways to hide, cracks to slip through and into, and for now, any country other than Burma, for a Rohingya, is a better country.

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