Rohingya in Malaysia warn against fleeing from Bangladesh
Before he flew to Thailand on a fake Bangladeshi passport and then crossed into Malaysia, Mohammed Imran was one of the most influential Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. He headed an 18,000-strong camp and represented them on the big stage.
In late 2017, at the peak of a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh fleeing violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, Imran paid traffickers $4,720 to be smuggled into Malaysia in search of a better life.
Malaysia has become home to more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees, the second-highest number in the world after Bangladesh, with most braving the Andaman Sea on rickety boats or paying people smugglers for fake travel documents.
But Imran and nearly two dozen other Rohingya men journalists spoke to in the Malaysian state of Penang said their hopes had been shattered because of a lack of jobs and harassment by police as they are deemed illegal immigrants.
Rohingya in Bangladesh: anniversary of the exodus
A year ago, the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar began. Hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Andrea Marshall gives her impressions of the refugee camp Kutupalong in Bangladesh.
Dusty, hot, narrow – and almost as big as Cologne: Rohingya began fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh decades ago. A refugee camp grew up next to the village of Kutupalong. As a result of the mass exodus since August 2017, the number of inhabitants there has risen sharply and further camps have been set up. A total of almost one million people now live there – a city almost the size of Cologne, but without the infrastructure
Football fever in the refugee camp: international flags fly at the entrance to the Kutupalong refugee camp. During the World Cup, the Brazilian, Argentinian and occasionally even the German flag were to be seen. Football fever gripped the camp and the surrounding villages, prompting coverage by citizen reporters. Even in a difficult situation there is joie de vivre
Monsoon floods and landslides: threatened by cyclones in the spring and torrential rains during the monsoon season, life here is mostly about coping with extreme hardship. The programme "Palonger Hotha" by citizen reporters serves partly to disseminate vital information: where can I find bamboo poles to reinforce the accommodation? Which residential areas should be evacuated because of the threat of mudslides?
The aim of the mission is also to strengthen people's identity by taking their everyday experiences seriously. The team of reporters, consisting of young Rohingya and local Bangladeshi people, asked: What is the impact on family life when you have to sit huddled together in a narrow hut for hours on end due to the weather?
Collecting constructive ideas: an important concern of the citizen reporters is to find constructive ideas and inspire the listeners. Reporter Sajeda reported on "hanging vegetable gardens" where beans are planted – a way to improve the food supply despite the limited space. There are also reports featuring household remedies for diseases that accumulate in the rainy season for hygienic reasons
Education instead of "lost generation": how do children remember their way home? What can they do to ensure they donʹt get lost in the huge refugee camp? What are the challenges of the Learning Centres in the camp? For reporter Iqbal, the education of the refugee children is a special concern. There are no real schools for them
Elephant alarm new for Rohingya: the refugee camp is on the route of the Asian elephants. At the beginning of the year there were several deaths after people in the camp tried to chase the animals away. The United Nations organised training courses on the correct handling of elephants, while "Palonger Hotha" reporters covered the initiative
Green hills deforested: some Bangladeshi people from the area have found work in connection with the refugee camp. But they also complain that hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Rohingya have raised food prices in the region. Hills have been deforested because the refugees needed space and firewood. That is why it is important to include the perspective of the locals on citizensʹ radio
Conflict-sensitive approach: the "Palonger Hotha" team with their local trainer Mainul Khan aims to deal responsibly with potentially sensitive issues. Politics is not the subject of the programme. On the other hand, the UNHCR's "Smart Card", which is supposed to facilitate the (voluntary) return of refugees to Myanmar and has been met with suspicion by many, is well reported
Overcoming the trauma: on the anniversary of the beginning of the mass exodus on 25 August, traumatic experiences were shared. People also told us how they cope with their trauma – one step at a time
They tell friends and family to stay in Bangladesh, despite the hostile conditions there and some are thinking of heading back.
"I thought I would have a life here - basic things like freedom to work, freedom to move around without always worrying about being bullied by police," said Imran, 30, sitting cross-legged in a run-down apartment he shares with three other Rohingya men.
Representatives of Malaysia's police and home ministry did not respond to questions from journalists.
Staring at a wall where his clothes hang from a rope, Imran recalled emotional conversations with his mother, who lives in Saudi Arabia, over fears she would never see her only son again. Imran's two younger sisters live in the Bangladesh camps and he sends them money every month, saving little or nothing for himself after food and rent.
"Our future is so obvious here: we have no future. In Bangladesh you at least have your family and friends around, you speak and understand the language, you have a voice," said Imran, who volunteers as a mental health counsellor, making about $600 a month.
Many Rohingya spent months in jail after entering Malaysia but were released at the request of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and now work odd jobs illegally.
Only a third of the adult Rohingya in Malaysia are employed, the UNHCR estimates.
Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, aid agencies and Rohingya say, as their chances of resettlement in a third country evaporate amid anti-refugee sentiment in countries such as the United States.
A UNHCR survey of 245 Rohingya in Malaysia in mid-2018 found about a fifth had moderate to severe mental health symptoms associated with depression and PTSD.
From January to April, a third of Rohingya patients presented at counselling with psychosomatic symptoms or chronic pain, medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said.
"There's an indication of a sense of helplessness among the patients," MSF told journalists.
Rohingya interviewed by journalists said they live in fear of arrest, detention and deportation as Malaysia has not ratified the U.N. Refugee Convention. A survey of 288 Rohingya construction workers in Malaysia published late last year found a quarter had been sent to jail at least once and nearly half had bribed police.
Imran said he knew of at least 1,000 Rohingya who were ready to go back, but they know that means again paying traffickers and risking arrest.
"My brothers ask me sometimes if they should come," said Mohammed Irfan, who spent six months in jail after reaching Malaysia in 2013. "I tell them if I could turn the clock back, I would have never come here." (Reuters)