While incidents of refugee trafficking in Malaysia have diminished since the U.S. State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking called attention to the country’s ranking among the world’s worst offenders, there has been no sign of a decrease in arrests of refugees — many of them Burmese — in Malaysia.
Malaysian detention camps are severely overcrowded as a result, and conditions are reportedly wretched, with limited or no access to clean water, medical treatment and food.
Karen Zusman, an independent journalist, recently returned from Malaysia, where she reported on the plight of Burmese refugees. In a previous blog, she wrote about “Jack” a young Burmese man who had fled to Malaysia.
Jack’s brother, “David,” had been arrested in Malaysia. At the time, 32-year-old David had been in a Malaysian detention camp for four months. But just recently, Zusman received a jubilant phone call in the middle of the night from the brothers — David had just been released from detention.
David joined Karen Zusman and Worldfocus to discuss his life and experience in the camps.
Karen Zusman: I know the camps have become overcrowded because the Malaysian government has come under scrutiny from the U.S. about trafficking refugees. So the deportations have stopped, but the arrests have not stopped.
David: Yes, that is exactly how it is. So the camps are way too crowded. They just pack us in there, they don’t care. To them we are illegal. Like criminals. They don’t care why we are here. So they put us in here like as if we are dogs.
Karen Zusman: The government has now allowed journalists to visit the camps. We have heard that some camps are getting better. Is this true?
David: I want to tell you, with all due respect, it is not like anything good at all these camps. It is like, truly, it is like hell. And they treat us like animals.
Karen Zusman: What are your days like in the camps?
David: We wake up every morning at 6:30 a.m. They give us some tea that is very weak, and a few biscuits. We can see on the package the biscuits are expired — they should not be eaten. As soon as we have our tea, we must rush to find a place in the shade to sit down. There are 700 people in this camp. It is only supposed to have half that many. So there is not many places to sit down if you don’t want to be in the sun all day. The sun is very hot here. About 33 or 35 degrees Celsius [roughly 90 degrees Fahrenheit]. So we all want the shade, but it is so crowded — it is very difficult even to find a place to sit down out of the sun.
Karen Zusman: And the other meals?
David: We get rice to eat for lunch, but very small amounts, and often it is moldy and not fully cooked. It is very bad. Maybe five days a week it is like this. And sometimes they give it to us right on the dirt, on the ground.
Karen Zusman: What about the hygiene in the camps, and sanitation?
David: The toilets are a big problem. There is no door and only four toilets for 700 people! If you are lucky, you can do your toilet needs in the middle of the night when people are asleep. The toilets are so terrible because nobody cleans them. You can imagine, 700 people using these four toilets! Oh, it is terrible.
Sometimes the only place to sit in the shade is near the toilets. The smell can make you sick. But still, it is better than being in the sun all day, because some days we don’t have any water.
Karen Zusman: What about bathing?
David: There is one tank of water. This is disgusting. No faucet. We have to dip into this water. 700 people. Can you imagine how dirty and oily this water gets from everyone using it to clean? And there is sometimes no water for the toilet, so, I mean, people are getting very dirty. I think you get the idea. And skin diseases. There are many skin diseases happening because the conditions are so bad. So these people with the diseases are also dipping their bodies into the water tank. Oh, it is so bad. So we are all catching everything from each other.
Karen Zusman: And what about if a detainee gets sick — is there any medical treatment available?
David: This is also really bad. You can be sick but they are not going to let you see the doctor. It can be really bad. One night a girl was crying a lot. Then we heard a lot of girls screaming for help. For a couple of hours they were shouting like this. But the detention people wouldn’t get the first girl see the doctor or take her to the hospital. She died that night, because her appendix burst open. I was also sick. I have a heart tension problem. But they do not want to give you any medical [treatment], so you just have to suffer there.
Karen Zusman: Is there any kind of discipline or punishment?
David: Yes, yes. That is what I wanted to talk you about. Another problem is that we get punished a lot. There are three main types of punishment:
1. The first one is the helicopter. This one we have to make a noise with our mouth like a helicopter. Then we are forced to take our shirt off and swing it around with one arm like a propeller. That is why they call it the helicopter. Maybe we have to do this for one hour. Your arm and your throat are in so much pain, but you have to keep going. They say, “Do the helicopter!” Or you will be beaten. It is really a humiliation, that one — doing the helicopter in front of all these people.
2. Sometimes they just beat you for punishment. They don’t even ask you to do the helicopter.
3. Press-ups, maybe 50 or 100 press-ups, I mean push-ups, in the sun.
Karen Zusman: What are the reasons for these punishments?
David: The main reason is talking during prayer time. The Muslims in the camp need to pray five times a day. Most of the refugees are not Muslims. So it is very hard for almost 700 people to keep quiet while only about 30 people are praying. But it doesn’t matter. If anyone talks at this time when someone is praying, they will be beaten or punished in another way that I have mentioned. Sometime we get beaten for asking for medical [attention]. That happened to me when I asked for medicine.
Karen Zusman: How did you get out of the camp?
David: The United Nations came. My brother got them to register me in the camp. And then they come every so often and get some of us released, if we are refugees that have been registered. If you are not registered by the U.N., then this is a big problem. That is why so many people want to be registered.
Karen Zusman: I have heard from other refugees that there are many people in the camps that were registered and arrested anyway, even though they showed the police their U.N. refugee card at the time of arrest — do you know anything about this?
David: Yes, this is also true. I don’t understand why they do that. The RELA, the immigration police, they really don’t seem to care about this card, if you have it or you don’t. Sometimes they might rip it up and laugh at you, or throw it on the floor or put it in their pocket. It only helps after you have been in the camps a long time and experiencing this kind of hell for a while. Then the U.N. can take you out. But not before.
Karen Zusman: How do you feel now that you have left?
David: I am so happy to be here back with my brother. But still, I — we — we are not free people in Malaysia. We are like animals, still, with no basic freedoms or rights. We really want to leave this place. We Burmese people are not safe in Malaysia. Even if we do nothing wrong and work very hard, any day can be a day we go to jail.
Karen Zusman: What is your dream for the future, if you can have a dream?
David: I don’t know if it is a dream. It is very simple, really. I want to have a family. And I want to see my mother and father in Burma, my parents. Let me tell you, this is a serious thing. A most important thing. For me first I need to see my parents. Then I want to get married and have my own family. As a free man. It can be in any country. Just not in Asia anymore please. I have been in Thailand, too, and it is also bad. We are from Burma. We want to go home to our families only in Burma. But we cannot. So then our next dream is that we would like to come to a country where we can have a family and feel safe.
— Karen Zusman
For more, listen to the audio documentary Please Don’t Say My Name.