JAKARTA (Reuters) - Muhammad Muslim, 52, fled Myanmar in 1988 when the junta brutally suppressed a pro-democracy movement in the country then known as Burma.
As a Rohingya from western Rakhine state, he had no passport. Myanmar’s government does not grant citizenship to the ethnic Muslims whom they consider illegal Bangladesh immigrants - even those whose families have been in the country since the colonial British brought them in during the late 19th century.
Muslim left Myanmar illegally, so he has no other papers that tie him to his home country. He spent 17 years in Malaysia as an illegal immigrant, waiting in vain for legal refugee status. And now he waits with his wife, two adult children and 23 other Rohingya in a dank, no-star hotel near Jakarta’s grubby port, hoping to get that status with the U. N. refugee office in Indonesia.
Since last year’s Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar, the numbers of Rohingya leaving the country have spiraled - with many of them now heading to Indonesia and onward to Australia.
Up until two years ago, hardly any Rohingya were making the perilous voyage in rickety fishing boats to Indonesia. Now the country is hosting nearly 850 of them, and immigration detention camps are filled with Rohingya.
Refugees seeking asylum in Australia often set sail from Indonesia or Sri Lanka, heading for Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in dangerous and overcrowded boats, with the help of people smugglers. Since 2001, almost 1,000 people have died at sea while attempting to reach Australia.
Australia’s immigration department has recorded 337 Rohingya asylum seekers in the first half of this year, compared with 389 for all of last year and 100 in 2011. The Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia estimates a total of 2,000 Rohingya refugees are living in Australia.
Many were allowed into Australia on bridging visas and receive around A$219 ($200) a week in welfare, but are barred from working until their status has been finalized, a process that can take years.
Others face being sent to detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, or the Pacific nation of Nauru. This is part of a reinstated policy aimed at deterring people smugglers by ensuring those who board boats have no better chance of living in Australia than those who apply through official channels.
Myanmar could go a long way towards resolving the refugee crisis by providing Rohingya papers that give them “a legal basis for declaring their point of origin”, said Michael Vatikiotis, Asian regional director for Humanitarian Dialogue, a conflict-mediation organization. “Countries like Malaysia have plentiful jobs for legal migrant labor, but so long as the Rohingya arrive as refugees without legal status, they are prone to trafficking.”
At the Jakarta port hotel, Muslim said he once hoped to go back to Myanmar. “Now I don’t anymore. Every day things are getting worse in Myanmar,” Muslim said, in fluent Malay.
His family never hoped to catch a smuggler’s boat to Australia; he simply couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars per person for a berth. Muslim came to Indonesia because he heard a rumor that the UNHCR office in Indonesia processed resettlement cases much quicker than in Malaysia.
When told that the Indonesia office still often took several years to process a resettlement case, Muslim sighed and said: “That’s fate.”
Reporting by Aubrey Belford in Jakarta, Lincoln Feast in Sydney, Jason Szep in Bangkok and Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur. Editing by Bill Tarrant