Cambodia: waiting for a country to call home


Source from Jesuit Refugee Service, 01 March 2012

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For Rohingya refugees, profits earned selling roti bread on the street are barely enough to meet basic needs. Cambodia. (Tess O’Brien/JRS)

Phnom Penh, 1 March 2012 – My name is Mohammad and I’m a Rohingya from Arakan state. Before I fled Burma, the authorities often stopped me on my way to school and sent me to work in military camps. They made me cook, clean, carry heavy building materials and things like that, and punished me if they were unhappy with my work.

We were targeted by the authorities for being Muslim; when they heard about our plans to build another classroom, our madrasa (Islamic school) was closed. On several occasions, my brother, father and I were all arrested and beaten.

One night I was offered an opportunity to go to Thailand with my uncle. I didn’t have any time to tell my family, but I couldn’t let this opportunity to escape slip by. At around midnight, 29 of us – all Rohingya – left by boat on what would be an 18-day journey. After three days, we ran out of drinking water and were forced to drink seawater which made us very sick.

We arrived into Thailand late at night. Unsure of where we were and scared to continue travelling over land, we hid in the jungle near the coast and waited until morning. As the sun rose, we were arrested and sent back to the Thai border city of Mae Sot where I would spend the next six months in immigration detention.

A lot of people were arrested around Mae Sot when I was there. I was terrified of being sent back to Burma, beaten and left to die as my father was. I escaped, and with my little remaining money I was able to cross into Cambodia and apply for asylum.

Every day I think about my future. Every day I worry about what will happen to me tomorrow. I just want to work and live peacefully and look after my family. I want the same things as everyone else.

JRS and the Rohingya

Mohammad is one of the many Muslim Rohingya refugees forced to flee their homes in western Burma. The Rohingya were made stateless after the 1982 Citizenship Act only recognised the national ‘races’ present in Arakan state prior to British colonisation in 1823.

Denied legal documentation, the Rohingya people are frequently oppressed by the Burmese authorities. Forced labour, land confiscation, restrictions on freedom of movement and religious expression are common features of their lives. Excluded from accessing public health and education services and prevented from taking up employment, they are forced to live in destitution.

The Rohingya have fled far afield – Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia – and in late 2009 they started arriving in Cambodia. In 2010, continued arrivals coincided with the implementation of the new refugee procedures, transferring responsibility for status determination from the UN refugee agency to the government.

The Cambodian government has not yet resolved any applications from Rohingya asylum seekers. Regrettably, the new framework does not afford any formal rights to asylum seekers, leaving them in legal limbo, and at the mercy of government officials turning a blind eye to their employment in the informal labour market.

With the help of JRS, many Rohingya have started their own businesses selling roti bread on mobile carts; but it is a daily struggle as profits barely meet the most rudimentary shelter and food costs.

As the Rohingya await the outcome of their asylum applications, JRS workers seek to help them deal with the day-to-day hardships. Perhaps the hardest part is knowing that even if their applications are accepted, their daily lives will not substantially change.

Trying to manage expectations is a challenge, as is encouraging them to make friends and learn the Khmer language and about its culture. But there is little hope they will be resettled to a third, wealthier, country. They face the daunting prospect of integration into Cambodian society, one which struggles, and often fails, to meet the needs of its own nationals.
Denise Coghlan RSM, JRS Cambodia Director

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