In a grimy, dimly lit room somewhere in downtown Kuala Lumpur the four walls seemed to be closing in with each passing minute. The air felt stale and stagnant, with little ventilation to remedy the suffocating feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and despair. Saleh Sepas had escaped the tumultuous Taliban-led Afghanistan. He, together with his family, was forced to make the life-altering decision after his role at BBC Radio where he actively advocated for human rights landed him in hot water with the Islamic fundamentalist group. Staying would’ve meant giving into a fate worse than death.
Freedom from tyranny and oppression, sadly, did not make for a comfortable living in Malaysia. Confronted by a great many obstacles, now as a refugee, Saleh struggled with depression for some time. It took a while before it dawned on him that playing the waiting game was no way to go through life and that he was a human being and an agent of change in his own rights. Determined to lift himself, along with his community, Saleh who strongly believes in the therapeutic power of the theatre—he has a degree in Fine Arts from a Kabul university—created Parastoo Theatre a year later.
Knowing full well what cultural displacement can do to one’s mental health, Saleh wanted to bring hope back through workshops that adopt Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal’s methodology, Theatre of the Oppressed, which suggests theatre as a catalyst of revolutionary change in society. It is here that the refugees relearn their potential and power. “I want to address the misconception about the refugees in Malaysia that we are always in need,” said Saleh when met at the organisation’s art centre nestled within Quill City Mall. “Parastoo is slowly changing the image of refugees. We have the knowledge and skills to contribute to this country,” he added.
Saleh, however, concurred that keeping hope alive amid the mounting setbacks is a big ask. “I know it because I didn’t get support from any local bodies in the beginning,” he said. “I got Parastoo off the ground with the help of my mentor and former colleague back in Afghanistan, Kayhan Irani. She organised a fundraiser on LaunchGood and gave me the RM18,000 she collected as seed capital,” he recalled. Keeping a steady momentum with one impactful production after another, Parastoo slowly grew its following and eventually started receiving financial backing from non-profit organisations and higher education institutions.
The playwright-cum-theatre director paused when asked about governmental support. “We did one show with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They paid us RM5,000,” he shared. “It was a nice surprise to hear from them because as we all know, refugees do not have the right to work legally, which could easily be interpreted as a sign that we’re not accepted here,” he added. It was indeed a positive sign especially after prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim expressed his willingness to improve ties with Afghanistan.
Anwar’s recent statement, while conditional, adds to the growing concern over the future of the refugees here, especially on the heels of National Security Council director general Rodzi Md Saad’s call to shut down the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office last September. This was later confirmed by special functions minister Abdul Latiff Ahmad, stressing that Putrajaya was looking to manage the approximately 200,000 asylum-seekers in the country independently, without foreign intervention.
Malaysia seemingly moving away from its relaxed attitude towards refugees has sparked debates among human rights activists and organisations. But the fact of the matter is that the country is not a State Party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. We may have cooperated with the agency to deal with the issues concerning the refugees—they are currently issued a UNHCR card to ease their movement in the country—but we are not bound by the core, non-refoulment principle of the Convention, which declares that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face stern threats.
A direct result of this non-committed commitment was especially evident last October when 150 Burmese asylum seekers were reportedly sent back to Myanmar. International non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch also revealed that Malaysia had deported about 2,000 Burmese asylum seekers in the past six months. It is a terrifying happening that has affected many others seeking shelter here. One of them is Yangon native Aunger Aung, who has made Malaysia her home for the past 15 years.
“There’s always this fear every time I’m outside. I haven’t even been to the clubs or bars, or going out in general as much because there have been a lot of raids, especially since the pandemic started,” she confided. “I know people who were sent back even with a UNHCR card,” she said, adding that she never knew the meaning of freedom the way we Malaysians do as she was always warned about potential arrests, even as a child who just wanted to come out and play with her friends. Aunger then explained that the UNHCR card does provide the refugees with protection to stay in the country.
That being said, they are still prohibited from enrolling in educational institutions and joining the workforce. It is a nonsensical rule that has put the refugees in an impossible position. Aunger went to a learning centre for her secondary education, which cost her family a fortune, and had to find a way around it. Currently taking an online course for her master’s in global diplomacy from the University of London and working as a personal assistant at a consulting company, the 24-year-old went into the adversity that she has faced to get to where she is today.
“We are not legally allowed to obtain a tertiary education. One day I was at this private university doing my foundation, the next day I was told that I couldn’t study there anymore,” she said. “I did my bachelor’s degree at another private university in Malaysia but I was put under the ‘short courses program’ even though I was studying an entire degree. This was done for legal reasons. We had to do it that way because you could get in trouble if the government looked closer into it,” she added. It is far from the life anyone would dream for themselves but Aunger tries to remember the reason why she left Myanmar in the first place.
“Being brown and Muslim in Myanmar has always been a problem. We are always subjected to discrimination,” she recalled. “I was still very young at the time but I remember that my mom couldn’t get a proper job. They never had the opportunity, so there’s just no way for them to make a living in there,” she said. Refusing to let their children endure the kind of hardship they did, Aunger’s parents uprooted the entire family and headed to Malaysia. It was the same reason why Manal Adlouni decided to flee her homeland Palestine, together with her two daughters, back in 2015.
The embattled country, in truth, hasn’t been home to Manal—or the rest of its people, for that matter—since she was also considered a refugee there. She was a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) cardholder as the city she’s from was, and is still, under occupation. Things took a turn for the worse in 2014 as Palestine became a battlefield like no one ever saw before. Rockets started raining down on the state, turning buildings into ruins and causing devastating loss of life, while survivors were scarred beyond imagination. Manal’s then six and four-year-olds were two of them—the slightest hint of thunder would awake them from their sleep.
“We knew about the situation for refugees here but we had no choice. Malaysia is the only country that allows Palestinians to enter without a visa,” she said. “Some people thought that the UN would simply provide us with financial assistance—they don’t. And still, we are not allowed to work?” she added. Trying her best to adhere to the regulations, she works as an admin at a learning centre under the UNHCR. But that little decree in the law only allows other establishments to continue the cycle of discrimination, as Manal shared her grievances over the ill-treatment that she has experienced here including being barred from opening a bank account and turned away at many driving academies.
“I have heard people complain about refugees not following the rules. We try to, but when you see refugees driving without a licence, ask yourself, ‘Why?’ It’s because the country does not allow us to get one, the legal way,” she said. Regardless of the obstacles she’s facing, Manal resigns herself to reality. All she ever wanted was for her family to be safe, to live without fearing for their lives. “I didn’t grow up in an environment where kids were allowed a real childhood, like what it’s supposed to be. I don’t want that for my daughters,” she ruminated.
While it is true that one is free from the fear of unlawful prosecution or inhumane execution here—a fact many of us have taken for granted whether we realise it or not— settling in the grey area is no way to live a life. Malaysia has no concrete domestic policy on asylum seekers and we are due for an establishment of a domestic, if not regional, framework to better support and protect the refugees who are at present vulnerable to exploitation. These “don’t ask, don’t tell” and “live and let live” credos are only a disguise for our half-hearted altruism, masking our own hypocrisy.