This article is published anonymously at the request of the author.
Lack of legal recognition or protection is something that greatly affects the lives of many people world-wide and is often a misunderstood or underestimated problem. I first moved to Malaysia three years ago to begin work with Burmese refugees; it was through this work that I learned more and more about life without any legal protection. Some people are sadly illegal from birth, I met and worked with many such people, their cases were all too often the most neglected and most challenging.
One day I went to teach English to some of the Burmese refugee children. Their ‘School’ was an abandoned garage, dark and damp yet with a whiteboard at the front and a group of 20 eager young students. I was amazed to see how excited they were to study; I had certainly never been that excited to see a new teacher growing up in England. After the class I spoke to one of the adults about the children’s education, his explanation revealed the sad truth behind their eagerness.
Because they are Christians from the Karen tribe they had been denied the chance to go to Government Schools in Burma. The elders in each village often created their own schools for the children. On many occasions the children had watched the Burmese army come to their School and arrest the teachers. They had also had to run for cover when the Burmese army came to their village and burned down the community made Schools and Churches.
Once these children arrived in Malaysia they were again denied the right to an education. Non-Malaysian children are not allowed to attend Government Schools in Malaysia and international School fees often mean that only privileged ex-pat children can attend. Thus the community again rallied together to provide an education for their children, often relying on hand outs as teaching supplies and volunteers, both Burmese and local as teachers.
I returned to the School a week later to teach my second class. When I arrived at the School I was greatly concerned to see two Policemen waiting outside. I went into the School, passed the Police and quickly informed the refugees of their presence. They told me not to worry, they explained that the Police came every month and demanded bribes not to arrest the children. As refugee status is not recognised in Malaysia that meant that the children were illegally in the country and could be detained.
These children had been denied an education in Burma, denied passports and their community had been targeted for Government attacks. Travelling to Malaysia via illegal means they continued to live without documents until gaining refugee status from the UN, sadly not recognised in Malaysia and remaining to be illegal people.