From Burma to barra

source from NT news, 17 Oct 2011

Abdul Mutalib loves fishing for barramundi in the Top End. Picture: KATRINA BRIDGEFORD

HE spends his working hours packing iced coffee at the local Parmalat factory, and in his spare time he enjoys fishing.

He’s strong, determined and a hard worker. And he came here on a boat. Abdul Mutalib’s claim for asylum was processed last year and the 34-year-old now lives in suburban Darwin.

But how he got here is quite a tale. As a Burmese Rohingya, life was never very easy for Abdul.

According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya people suffer from systematic persecution, including forced labour, forced eviction, land confiscation and restrictions on freedom of movement.

The Burmese authorities refuse to grant them citizenship because they are Rohingya, rendering them stateless. “They will kill us if they send us back to Burma,” Abdul says. Many years ago his family’s farm was taken by the government and all male family members, including Abdul, were forced into labour. “I was helping to make roads. If you don’t work hard they will kill you,” he says.

Life was tough, but it was about to get tougher when Abdul went to live with his grandfather in Burma’s Rakhine State and the government began accusing him of being involved in politics. “The government thinks I hid my grandfather because he is political,” he explains.

Abdul still has the scars from where he was tortured by police. The constant threats on his life led him to the first of three frightening boat rides. He was only 19. Abdul went to Malaysia seeking safety. Instead he spent 11 years being bribed, beaten, imprisoned and working illegally.

He discovered his mistreatment in Burma extended to neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where Rohingyas can be refused access to refugee determination procedures.

Once in Malaysia, Abdul was stuck. He could not legally work, was stateless so he could not be sent back to Burma, and was denied proper access to UNHCR – the only way he could be processed as a refugee.

He spent his nights hiding in the jungle and his days finding illegal work on construction sites. Often he was pulled up by police, and twice this landed him in detention centres, but he says most of the time the officers just wanted money from him.

He spent time in the infamous Penang detention centre, Juru. “It was a very troubled life there. You cannot sleep day and night. There are mosquitoes and bed bugs. We had no clothes. No privacy for the toilet.”

When asked how he felt about the Australian Government’s proposal to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, Abdul looks shocked. “It is not safe there for refugees. They do not help people, for Malaysia they take your money only.”

He points around the lounge room where we sit – it’s about 6m by 3m. “There would be 50 people in a room this size (at Juru), at night you cannot sleep because there is no room, so we just sit. Then guards come and yell at us to sleep and beat us even though there is no room for us to lie down.”

Abdul never had any documents. He was not entitled to a birth certificate as the Burmese Government does not recognise Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. When he escaped to Malaysia, UNHCR gave him an ID card, which was later taken from him by police.

In all his time in Malaysia, Abdul said he never saw any Burmese Rohingya people processed as refugees, one of the reasons he took things into his own hands. “My life was finished if I stayed there, but if I left I could make a good life.”

Four years ago he boarded a boat with some fishermen to go to Indonesia. He was captured by Indonesian police and lived a difficult life in detention there for two years. “It was a very troubled time for me,” he says.

After two years he was released, but conditions were poor. He was not allowed to work and faced persecution for being Rohingya, so after a month he negotiated his way on to a small boat crammed with 15 people that was bound for Australia.

The smuggler he found asked him for $2000, but his life savings from working in construction in Malaysia for 11 years amounted to $1000. He managed to bargain him down on the price. “I worked hard in Malaysia and did not spend too much. I get 23 ringgit a day (about $7),” he says. “Many, many policemen take from me.”

It took six days and six nights, and eventually his boat was brought in by Australian customs. He says turning boats around is not safe. “They will fall apart and people will die.”

On his own journey Abdul woke one morning to discover large seas had broken off parts of his boat. Abdul says when he left Burma – and even when he left Malaysia – Australia was not in his sights. At those times all he could think about was his safety. The first time he ever heard of Australia was in an eatery in Malaysia.

“Sometimes I would see Australian television programs. I saw on one program how good life was for animals in Australia and I thought, for humans, how good must it be?” he says.

Abdul did a stint at the Christmas Island detention centre, before being taken to Darwin’s Northern Immigration Detention Centre.

He says the conditions here were difficult for many people who were there for long periods of time. He said he’d seen men harm themselves and attempt suicide.

“Many people there are thinking about their family. Many people are hanging (themselves). “When I go to sleep at night I think about my life and I am troubled. “I am 34 and I still don’t know how life should be for humans.” But he’s learning.

Abdul was given his freedom on August 18, 2010 – and he’s made the most of it. Abdul had studied some English at school, but had not had the opportunity to practice it until he came to Australia, so he took language lessons while he looked for work.

“The Australian Government is good to help us to find a job and to study English,” he says.

For the first two months after his release, he received Centrelink benefits, but for almost a year now he’s been earning a crust at the Parmalat factory, where he works 38 hours a week on a casual basis, packing iced coffee. Abdul sends money home when he can. Often he is unable to do so which means his family just doesn’t eat.

I ask if he’s receiving any Centrelink payments or financial assistance now. “No! I don’t want money for free. I can work,” he says. “If I don’t take money from government, they can spend it on other people.”

His mate Mohammed was released from detention four months ago and now lives nearby with several other Burmese Rohingyas. Abdul is an inspiration for them as they attend job interviews and adjust to freedom. “When I came here I didn’t have any friends or any money. Now I like living in Darwin.

“I caught big barramundi at Buffalo Creek. “I like my work at Parmalat. I want to work hard, build a home and buy a car.”

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