'Silent in fear': refugee women in Malaysia unprotected against violence

Last Updated on Feb. 12, 2018, 12:44 p.m.

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rolling up the sleeves of her long black robe to reveal a scar from a cigarette burn on her arm, refugee Sara shows how her husband pressed a pillow over her face to shut her up when he attacked her.

The abuse began as soon as they got married in 2009, just a year after Sara had fled her home in Myanmar, where her fellow Rohingya - an ethnic Muslim minority - are shunned and persecuted in the Buddhist-majority nation.

She landed in Malaysia and married her husband, a 42-year-old Rohingya man, the following year.

”I wanted to be a good wife but he was always very angry. He would not allow me to go out, he would expect me to have all the food ready, and prepare him a hot towel and a glass of water when he gets home.

“He would hit me if he was not happy. If I cried, he covered my mouth with a pillow so our neighbors could not hear me,” said Sara, who used a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from her husband.

The 30-year-old eventually escaped her home with her six-year-old son and the pair have been living for five months in a shelter run by an organization that supports migrant workers and refugees.

Stories like Sara’s are not unusual among the refugee community in Malaysia, which hosts over 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority of them from Myanmar and some of whom have lived in the country for over a decade.

Rights groups say uncertainty over their future and years of living in a host country where they are considered illegal migrants have taken a toll on their mental health, and driven up cases of domestic violence among refugee families.


Kuala Lumpur-based Tenaganita, a campaign group which works with refugees, said there was “extensive” gender-based violence against refugee women in Malaysia.

Since last year, the group has been working with the University of Colorado in the United States to conduct a two-year survey among some 500 Rohingya families in Malaysia on the prevalence of gender-based violence.

Tenaganita’s executive director, Glorene Das, said although the survey is still underway, early indications showed both male and female respondents acknowledged physical and emotional abuse happened within their families.

“Not being able to resettle or taking a long time adds stress to the family,” Das told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Ultimately husbands or the male family members tend to take it out on their female partners.”

She added that the fact refugees are not recognized by the government also means that victims of violence have no legal avenue to turn to when they want to seek recourse.

“Their deemed ‘illegality’ renders the women silent in fear,” Das said.

While the refugees are recognized by the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR, Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which means all refugees are viewed as illegal migrants awaiting resettlement in a third country.

The country also does not extend protection, job opportunities or education to them, leaving many refugees end up finding odd jobs in the informal sectors as cleaners, waiters or construction workers.

Campaigners say the lack of a formal status often leaves refugees vulnerable to abuse, and at risk of arrest as well as deportation under immigration laws.

Some refugees are resettled by the United Nations in so-called third countries, such as the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and Australia.

Responding to a query from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the UNHCR could not say how long on average it takes for a refugee in Malaysia to be resettled because applications are handled on a case by case basis.

But its data showed number of refugees who left Malaysia for resettlement fell from over 12,500 in 2015, to about 8,100 in 2016 and plummeted to 2,338 to the end of October 2017.

“Given the limited numbers of resettlement places, UNHCR must prioritize those with acute and pressing vulnerabilities,” UNHCR spokeswoman Yante Ismail said in an emailed reply.

“For those who do not have a pressing need for resettlement, the process can take much longer, or may not even be an available option,” she added.


Although President Donald Trump lifted a temporary ban on most refugee admissions in October, the number of refugees admitted to the United States has dropped, according to a Reuters analysis of State Department data.

UNHCR’s Yante said the uncertainty refugees feel about their future brings a “corrosive effect” on their mental and physical health and called on Malaysia to do more to protect them in the country.

Meanwhile violence - especially against women - continues.

Noor Arifah Bujang, who provides counseling to refugee women, said they often told her stories of how their husbands were in constant fear of being arrested and struggled to make ends meet.

“The (husbands) become stressed and they tend to beat up their wives or children. Marital rape is the most common,” she said.


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