KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 21, 2011 (AFP) – – Akhbar and his family fled a perilous existence in Afghanistan for an uncertain life in Malaysia and now dream of a better future in Australia under a controversial refugee swap deal.
If that doesn’t happen, he says, he is willing to risk death to sneak into Australia by boat.
Akhbar, 35, is among thousands of migrants here hoping they will be part of a scheme that would see Australia send 800 illegally arrived boatpeople to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 registered refugees.
The plan was put on hold by the High Court in Canberra after human rights groups protested. But Akhbar, who is a registered refugee, is determined to make it to a developed country like Australia even if it means entering illegally via a dangerous sea voyage.
“If we die, no problem. If we arrive in Australia, it’s so good. No more torture,” he said, referring to the precariousness of living illegally in exile
Akhbar’s dreams underline the desperation that motivates refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar to attempt perilous journeys and live like fugitives in the distant hope of making it to Australia.
Speaking in the two-bedroom flat he shares with seven relatives in Malaysia’s bustling capital Kuala Lumpur, Akhbar — who asked that a pseudonym be used because he feared discovery by authorities — said his family’s difficult journey began four years ago.
Farmers from the Hazara minority, they fled their central Afghan town to escape harassment by armed nomads of the Pashtun majority who would graze their livestock in Akbhar’s fields of wheat and vegetables.
“Every year when the land is growing, they bring their animals… They eat everything, then we have nothing,” said Akhbar, seated on a colourful Persian carpet.
“If we stay there, maybe we will be killed today or tomorrow,” he said, adding that many of his friends had died at the hands of brigands.
With the hired help of human-smugglers, he and his family snuck across the border to Pakistan and then Iran.
A friend there told them of work opportunities in fellow Muslim country Malaysia, which at the time offered a visa exemption — later scrapped due to abuse — to Afghans and other Asian tourists.
The family, including his parents, wife and daughter, soon arrived in Malaysia, after spending more than $6,500 — the bulk of the family savings — on smugglers and air tickets.
But to Akhbar, the odyssey is unfinished.
They were registered as bona fide refugees by a UN agency in Kuala Lumpur, but that is unrecognised by Malaysia, leaving them vulnerable to harassment and deprived of access to legal employment, education and health care.
Several jobs later, Akhbar now works illegally 12 hours a day as a chef’s assistant in an Iranian restaurant, earning 1,200 ringgit ($400) per month, half of which is spent on rent. He has about two days off per month.
He and his brother were once detained for 17 days after they were caught working in a shop. His wife and two-year-old daughter rarely leave the flat, fearing harassment from authorities and thugs.
Malaysia has an estimated two million illegal migrants from around Asia. More than 94,000 are considered refugees — mostly from Myanmar — including about 500 Afghans.
Many of the Afghans spent years in exile in Iran before coming to Malaysia.
They suffer from a lack of support networks, said Sharuna Verghis of Health Equity Initiatives, which counsels refugees with mental health problems.
“It’s generations being born and growing in exile without a legal identity… You can’t live a whole life like that without identity, without meaning, without purpose,” she said.
“The sense of hopelessness is so deep and so pervasive.”
Most Afghan refugees in Malaysia are Shiites, and are thus looked down upon in a Sunni Muslim country where the Shia faith is officially banned.
They also are often wrongly viewed as linked to Afghanistan’s militant Taliban, making it difficult to rent accomodation and find jobs, said Verghis.
Activists in Australia and Malaysia have heavily criticised the swap agreement, citing Malaysia’s track record of detaining refugees.
Under the deal, those transferred to Malaysia cannot be detained. The UN refugee agency will assess their situations and they will receive help with finding housing and other basic needs.
Those not deemed to be fleeing persecution face deportation.
Australian and Malaysian officials say the plan will deter boatpeople — but they have continued to arrive.
Akhbar knows many who have attempted the voyage to Australia, exasperated by a resettlement wait which can take years. Last year, just 8,000 of Malaysia’s registered refugees were resettled elsewhere.
Some of Akhbar’s acquaintances obtained asylum, but others — including several families — never made it as their rickety boats sank.
Akhbar stands ready to take that risk if his family is not resettled and if they can scrape up enough money for the illicit passage.
“I wish to go to a place with respect for humans. Then I will be there forever,” he said.