Real life in focus

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  • Tuesday, 20 Oct 2009

THE No Refuge: Burmese Refugees in Malaysia photo exhibition at Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market highlights the plight of the displaced Myanmarese population in Malaysia, many of whom left behind a deplorable existence in Myanmar but found life here only a marginal improvement.

Organised by the Annexe Gallery and human rights NGO Suaram, the exhibition features 70 photographs by five award-winning photojournalists.

The images are captured in real-life settings and focus on the woeful persona-non-grata predicament of the displaced Myanmarese in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas.

The exhibition featuring the works of Halim Berbar (France), Simon Wheatley (UK), Greg Constantine (US), Zhuang Wubin (Singapore) and Rahman Roslan (Malaysia) also marks the launch of a petition campaign to get the Malaysian government to sign the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

“We hope this exhibition will help us reflect on the difficulties faced by these people and open our eyes to their situation,” said Pang Khee Teik, the gallery’s art programme director.

As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention nor its 1967 protocol, Malaysia does not recognise Myanmarese refugees.

According to the UNHCR in Malaysia, 90% of the registered 63,600 refugees and asylum seekers are from Myanmar. Many more remain unregistered.

UNHCR grants protective refugee status via a registration card system, but the lack of a legal and administrative framework hampers possible recourse regarding refugees’ rights.

For the displaced Myanmarese, being stateless has hindered their access to proper healthcare and education. Even when they are eligible for a 50% discount at public hospitals upon registration with the UNHCR, the medical fees still remain beyond their means.

As for education, different communities have come together to build classrooms.

“We have seen 60 of those makeshift schools around the Klang Valley,” a UNHCR spokesperson said, adding that there were currently eight UNHCR and NGO-funded schools in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Johor.

She said the Malaysian authorities generally allowed refugees to take up jobs in informal circumstances for survival. However, the absence of work permits has left the refugees vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

“The police — with a mandate to protect the public — quite readily recognise the validity of the UNHCR registration cards, thus ensuring protection for refugees,” she said.

However, due to the lack of guidelines, action by enforcement agencies like the Immigration department and Rela often results in hardship for the refugees.

While there are no ready answers, the Myanmarese continue to hope. As they struggle to rebuild their lives, they still look forward to a better future, and this is vividly reflected in the photo exhibition. Each photo tells a story of despair, fear, loneliness and hope.

No Refuge was launched last Thursday at The Annexe Gallery in Central Market Annexe, Kuala Lumpur. Part of the sale proceeds will go to the Suaram campaign for the rights of Myanmar refugees. Proceeds from the sale of Halim Barber’s photos will be fully donated to procure medical supplies for refugees.

The No Refuge: Burmese Refugees in Malaysia photo exhibition in Central Market, KL, will be held till Oct 25. Viewing times: 11am-8pm (Sunday to Thursday), 11am-9.30pm (Friday and Saturday). Admission is free.

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