Rohingya family seeks home after 16 years on the move

Telling the Human Story, 23 October 2013

© UNHCR/V.Tan
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