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Sean and I just returned from our mission to Bangladesh and Malaysia, where we focused on the situation for Burmese Rohingya refugees in both countries. I last conducted an assessment mission to Malaysia in April 2007.
It’s distressing to see that the Government of Malaysia continues to target refugees for arrest, detention and deportation, including pregnant women and children. However, despite the difficult situation facing Rohingya in Malaysia, one very positive development that I learned about on this trip is the recent creation of a Rohingya women’s group.
Traditionally, women within the Rohingya community do not take on leadership roles. But through the encouragement and support of a Malaysian civil society organization, several Rohingya women have come together to form a committee and have made a plan to work towards improving their situation.
Lack of access to education for their children was one of the main issues identified by the women. Since Malaysia does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees but calls them illegal migrants (along with all the other Burmese refugees in the country), their children are barred from attending public schools. The women’s group had started an informal school in a residential building but was eventually forced to stop when one of the neighbors complained and told the women they would call immigration to arrest them.
Access to healthcare is another serious gap. It can be expensive and dangerous for refugees to give birth in local hospitals or clinics. Last year when I was in Malaysia several refugee women had been arrested and placed in detention with their newborn babies after having delivered at a local hospital. One pregnant Rohingya woman I spoke with told me that she had given birth to her first two children at home, and planned to do the same with this one. She is five months pregnant and had not yet been to see a doctor for prenatal care. She said her husband has no job at the moment and they have no money to pay for medical care.
Given the difficult conditions they are living under in Malaysia, it is encouraging to see these women push the boundaries of their normal roles in the community. They are now trying to open a center where they can do activities such as skills training and education. They even have plans to start a beauty salon. The women told me that it’s good to be organized together, despite the pressure and criticism many feel from their husbands. With all the abuses endured by the Rohingya inside Burma, these women do not wish to return there anytime soon, and while many would like to be resettled to a third country, the reality is that very few will be. That is why it was so compelling to meet and talk with these women, who are trying little by little to provide for themselves and their families, since no government will.
--Camilla OlsonDecember 03, 2008 | Tagged as: Bangladesh, Malaysia