Rohingya family seeks home after 16 years on the move

Telling the Human Story, 23 October 2013

Mohammed Karim with his young family at their temporary home in a community housing project near Medan, Indonesia.

MEDAN, Indonesia, October 23 (UNHCR) Mohammed Karim* is no rolling stone, but forced by circumstances, the 36-year-old Rohingya refugee has been on the move for nearly half his life.

Despite living in five countries, surviving a near-death experience and years of exploitation, he has still not found a place to call home for his family. His unfortunate experience illustrates the need to address the push and pull factors that are causing people to be displaced many times over.

Born and bred in Maungdaw, in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, Karim used to work as a mason. "At the time, the military was building a big tower in my area, and I was picked to work on it," he said. "In my two weeks there I received no pay and no food. One night, I escaped. I tried to go home but met my father along the way. He said the military had come looking for me. He gave me money and told me to escape."

In 1997, Karim, then 19, fled across the border to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. For three months, he worked in a tea shop. His employer provided food and shelter, but refused to pay his wages. Karim moved on to India briefly before deciding to go to Myanmar's then-capital, Yangon. He soon realized that he could not stay without documents, and took a boat to Thailand where he performed manual labour for several months. With the help of his employer, he went to Malaysia, where he registered with UNHCR and worked informally on construction sites for five years.

Despite having refugee documentation, he said he faced constant harassment. "One night I was arrested and they beat me on the back with a rattan cane. It was just one time, but it was unbearable, devastating," he said. "After my release eight months later, I went to Indonesia where I heard there were boats going to Australia."

He arrived in Indonesia in 2008, and arranged to join a smuggler's boat with 40 others bound for Australia. "The boat capsized around Kupang [in Indonesia's West Timor]," he recalled. "Only nine of us survived. We drifted for 12 hours on the sea, holding onto plastic fuel drums. We reached a small Indonesian island and found some locals. They gave us food, shelter, and called the police."

Karim was held at the Kupang immigration detention centre before being released to community housing in Medan on Indonesia's Sumatra island. After a few months, he went to Malaysia again, this time for an arranged marriage to a Rohingya woman whose father he knew.

By June 2011, the couple was back in Indonesia. In March this year, they welcomed a baby daughter. The young family is now hosted in community housing run by the International Organization (IOM) for Migration in Medan. They say they are getting by with refugee documentation provided by UNHCR and a monthly allowance from IOM. But they know this arrangement is temporary and feel stressed not knowing what is next.

"Killing time is difficult. Every day we eat, sleep and gossip. We talk about our lives, our future. It's hopeless, we've been here a long time," said Karim, his face etched with frustration and fatigue.

At a recent regional meeting in Jakarta on the irregular movement of people, the UN refugee agency urged countries in the region to commit to a regional "road map" for action. This would bring together countries of origin, transit and destination working collaboratively to address humanitarian and protection challenges as experienced by refugees like Karim through his long journey across the region in search of protection.

"Unresolved refugee situations, especially where there are no or limited options for self-reliance, often lead to irregular movements further afield," said UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Turk during the Jakarta meeting. "The best way to stabilize populations where they are, while also focusing on practical concerns of states that are currently hosting refugees and asylum-seekers, is to improve their conditions of stay whilst working out solutions."

Host countries can do so by giving refugees and asylum seekers access to basic services and to legal work. Harmonizing such reception and stay arrangements across countries will help to reduce the need for onward movement while providing an effective platform for refugees to contribute to their host communities. At the same time, there must be safer and more predictable ways of finding long-term solutions such as "in-country solutions" where refugees find themselves, voluntary repatriation, or resettlement to a third country.

For Karim, returning to Myanmar is not an option and his hopes of resettlement are fading after two years. But he is trying to stay grounded: "After getting married and having a child, I want to live, to survive. I'm trying to find the meaning of life."

His wife Ranjani, 22, added, "I hope we get a safe country to live in. I dream that my daughter can go to school and be a proper human being."

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Vivian Tan in Medan, Indonesia




UNHCR country pages

Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

In 1991, some 250,000 refugees from Myanmar's Northern Rakhine state fled by boat and on foot to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they were sheltered in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazar district. While the majority of these refugees eventually returned home, some 20,500 people – mostly Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group – remain in two of the original camps.

Conditions in these camps are below standard, with many refugees living in overcrowded shelters in desperate need of repair. Frequent heavy rains inundate the area, further damaging shelters and spreading disease. Harassment and discrimination add to the plight of the Rohingya refugees, the majority of whom say that they do not want to return home until there is peace and democracy in Myanmar.

The UNHCR has expanded its routine protection monitoring in Cox's Bazar to address the problems of sexual and gender-based violence as well as trafficking of women and children. The UN refugee agency continues to work with governments, other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations to try and find a durable solution for the Rohingya refugees.

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Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

"Living Silence" is a photographic exhibition of one of the world's most enduring refugee crises, by award-winning photographer Saiful Huq Omi.

Bangladesh has hosted refugees for over three decades. Today, 28,000 refugees from Myanmar known as the Rohingya - an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority people - are living in the two official refugee camps in the south-east of Bangladesh. Over half of them are children, many of whom have only ever experienced life in the camps. It is estimated that there are a further 200,000 Rohingya living outside the camps, unable to return to Myanmar where they fear persecution and exploitation.

Like refugees around the world, the Rohingya refugees are survivors. They are living in transience, waiting for the day they can go home in safety and in dignity. Until then, like any other people, they aspire to live a life free from violence and exploitation.

Together with other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR provides shelter, water, primary education and health care to refugees from Myanmar in the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps. UNHCR is also working with governments around the world to resettle some of the most vulnerable.

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

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With eight relief flights and an earlier truck convoy from nearby Thailand, UNHCR had by June 6, 2008 moved 430 tonnes of shelter and basic household supplies into Myanmar to help as many as 130,000 victims of Cyclone Nargis. The aid includes plastic sheeting, plastic rolls, mosquito nets, blankets and kitchen sets. Once the aid arrives in the country it is quickly distributed.

On the outskirts of the city of Yangon – which was also hit by the cyclone – and in the Irrawady delta, some families have been erecting temporary shelters made out of palm leaf thatching. But they desperately need plastic sheeting to keep out the monsoon rains.

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