UNHCR staff celebrate release of babies from detention in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 23 (UNHCR) – The office of the UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur was abuzz with excitement as staff awaited the arrival of their guests of honour. Soon they arrived – six babies aged between 30 and 40 days – after being released on Thursday from an immigration detention facility.

The tiny tots slept in their mothers’ arms, oblivious to the excitement around them as families reunited and UNHCR staff hurried to process paperwork. The group looked tired, but their elation and relief was apparent.

The babies were among a group of 25 persons of concern, who were released into UNHCR custody by Malaysian authorities. They and their relatives – all from Myanmar – had been arrested and held for up to four weeks for not having valid immigration documents.

The Malaysian Immigration Act does not distinguish between a refugee and an immigrant, thus refugees and asylum seekers are sometimes arrested and detained in the immigration holding facility. (more…)



Par Iang (not her real name) just found out she was pregnant with her fourth child when she had to flee her village in Myanmar. “My brother’s son was arrested and imprisoned for being in the CNF. I visited him at the prison, giving him food and support. After that they accused me of being involved with the CNF. Even though I was pregnant, I had to run”.

In Malaysia, she stayed in a flat together with others from her community. In October of 2006, there was a raid by RELA and the Immigration at 2.30 in the morning. Without papers, she was bundled into a lorry and bought to the police station. HA was six and a half months pregnant. She spent a month in Lenggeng detention centre before being brought to court and sentenced, where she was then transferred to Kajang prison to serve the rest of her sentence. And where she gave birth to her daughter.

Kajang prison had some concessions to pregnant women. They went for pre-natal visits once a week to the Kajang General Hospital, where she eventually gave birth to her baby. After her birth, she was transferred to a cell with less inmates (3 instead of 11), and she now had a bed to sleep on. The doctor gave her milk powder, and the prison guards gave her disposable diapers for her baby. There was a special nurse for babies born in the prison.

But still it was a very difficult time for her. “I had chains while giving birth”, Par Iang gestured and told me how her right hand was handcuffed to the bed during her labour and delivery. “I felt so bad”.

She gave birth at around 6 in the morning, and by 5 pm the same day, she was discharged and back in prison. She was not given extra food before or after her delivery. “When I got back to prison I had no energy. I had no milk from my breasts. After three days, the baby was turning yellow. It was difficult because I cannot speak Malay. Eventually the doctor gave me milk.”

“I cried a lot, thinking about the condition my baby was in. They gave 4 disposable diapers – 2 during the day and 2 at night. It was not enough but I had to keep them on. They didn’t give me soap or extra clothing. My clothes were often soiled with urine and excrement from the baby but I could not change.”

“They look down on Myanmar people so much. They say Myanmarese are crazy people, stupid people. That made me so upset. But I am the mother of my child. I love her, and that gave me the energy and spirit to go on living.”

With the help of the UNCHR, Par Iang was released 3 weeks after giving birth to KA. Recently, her husband made the journey to Malaysia with her other children. They are finally reunited.


“It is not the facilities that I like, but the feeling of freedom in my heart”

Taang Haangsaai (not his real name) is one of the lucky ones. He was resettled to Melbourne about four months ago. Haangsaai actually wanted to delay his resettlement because being a community leader here in Malaysia, he wanted to stay on to help his people – the Zomi from Myanmar. Only the threat that his delay would affect the future resettlement of his people made him reconsider and fly off a week after he was originally supposed to go.

But now, only four months later, he is back in Malaysia, visiting his people to give them encouragement, “especially“, he says, “those living in jungle camps“. Having visited these camps, I would have to agree. I tell them that we have to be patient and we should never give up hope.” He’s also planning on popping by at the UNHCR to thank them for all their assistance.

As I got to know a bit about his story, his advice of patience and hope is not far from his own story. Haangsaai applied for refugee status back in 2001. It was rejected. He appealed, but before he could be re-interviewed, he was arrested, put in detention and eventually deported to Thailand. Haangsaai managed to get back to Malaysia and had his re-interview, only to be arrested again, this time in 2003. Pleading not guilty, he was nevertheless sentenced to 2 whips of the cane and 8 months in prison. He was then sent to Semenyih Detention centre, the start of a 3 year ordeal where he resisted deportation, choosing instead to stay put and fight the system. Haangsaai wrote many letters to the UNCHR, was visited, interviewed, rejected again, had his file reopened, and finally, at the end of 2005, his application was finally accepted. Haangsaai had spent 3 long years in Semenyih detention centre. At one point, he was sick for more than half a year, losing weight, losing hope, losing spirit. Eventually hospitalised, he got better, and fought on.

Now he lives in Melbourne in a house with his friends. He gets an allowance of AUD420 every fortnight, which he says is “just enough“. The resettlement company paid for the deposit on the house he rented, and then furnished it. It is basicHaangsaai says, “but useful“. Haangsaai attends English classes free of charge, and later on, he can enroll in other courses to learn a skill and have some sort of certification – also free. At the end of the year, Haangsaai plans to enrol for the citizenship course, and later on, apply for Australian citizenship.

People here are very nice. You know, we are treated in our own country like slaves. Australian people are very good. Even the teenagers – sometimes they look wild, but when we say hi, they speak to us very nicely. People here are very friendly. Especially in the bus (which Haangsaai takes to go to his English course). The bus drivers greet everybody. They say hello, hi, and g’day mate. They chat to everyone. I’m trying to get into these habits because I know my face is not smiling!”

But having been persecuted in his home country and imprisoned and detained in Malaysia, Haangsaai feels something else even more precious in Australia.

When I got to Melbourne, I feel I possess my freedom. I am a free man. No one can torture me or suppress me. It is not the facilities that I like, but the feeling of freedom in my heart“.


KA is six months old. Her name means “God is good to me”. And God has been good to her. Born in Kajang prison, KA and her mother were released 3 weeks after with the help of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). She slept in her mother’s arms for most of the interview, waking up only to suckle for a few minutes before falling back blissfully into sleep.

Her older sister is 4 years old, but KA “looks more like me. Her sister looks more like her father”. “She is very quiet. She is the most quiet of my children. She never cries, and she can play quietly by herself. She is also faster than my other children. At 5 months old, she is already sitting. Now she can stand!”

As I was taking pictures, I looked through the lens at her big, round, innocent eyes, and hope that God will continue to be good to her.

Read the story of her mother, KA here.


Listening to Van Vel Thang’s (not his real name) story was like listening to a tourist rate the various hotels he’s been to in Malaysia. Only the “hotels” were the various detentions centres that he was detained and shuffled back and forth over a period of 7 months.

Vel Thang was arrested by the Immigration in Batu Pahat, Johor in December last year. He holds a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) card, which was why, he explained, “I didn’t run away. They stopped me before, at KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre – a shopping mall) but I had a UNHCR card so they let me go”. In Batu Pahat, the Immigration people asked me “Do you have an identity card?” I said no. “Do you have a passport?”. I said no. I told them I am a refugee and I have a UNHCR card. They told me to “follow us to the station – you can tell your story there”.

At the station, they told me that “if UNHCR comes tonight, you can go”. It was Saturday, and when we called the UNHCR hotline, they told us that their office is closed and that they can only send people on Monday.” Batu Pahat is a town in Johor, whilst the only UNHCR office is in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur – two states away.

They were sent to Pekan Nenas detention centre, where they spent 57 days in detention. “Nobody can visit us for the first 14 days, so we waited for that period to be over, but the UNHCR never came. The Immigration officers told us that the UNHCR did not want to come, but when we called the UNHCR, they told us that the Immigration are not letting them in. “We went on a hunger strike for 10 days”. (more…)


“They told me to take my clothes off. They told me to face a wooden rack. They spread my arms and then tied both my hands to the wooden rack. The person who whipped me was big and tall. More than 6 feet tall. He held this long cane”, and with this FA spread his arms as wide as possible to show how long it was. “The first whip, it was so painful that I fell unconscious. But the second whip, my bottom was numb by then, so I didn’t feel so much pain. I took 2 weeks to recover from the whipping.”

Tha Peng Ling (not his real name) still has the scars from the whips and the months he spent in prison and detention centre. He developed gastritis in detention, and now he tires very easily when walking. Tha Peng thinks there is something wrong with his lungs. After his whipping, he also easily forgets things.

And now, he is always afraid.

The 2 lashings of the cane was part of Tha Peng’s sentence for being without proper documents in Malaysia. In total, he spent 4 months in prison and 1.5 months in a detention centre before being deported to the Thai border where he made his way back to Malaysia after borrowing money from friends to pay an agent.

“My father was a teacher in Myanmar. In 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi visited our village. My father was very active in organising her visit. Later one of our relatives who works with the Government warned my father that he will be arrested. That night, we locked up our house and walked away into the night. We walked from village to village for 7 days until we reached Mizoram in India.”

“My father and mother, and my wife and two children are still in India, but I want to stay here. I want to be registered as a refugee with the UNHCR.”

From the International Medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders)


I grew up in Chin state in the west of Myanmar. Things were very difficult for my family because – like many people – we were frequently forced to work for the military. My parents had a small farm but it was hard to make a living. They were often made to work on military construction projects, so were not able to farm the land. People who refused to do military labour were arrested.

When I was about 15, we moved to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. I went to college there and started studying for a degree in psychology, but after two years the authorities closed the university down because of student demonstrations. When I found out that the Bible School offered some courses in counselling, I decided to continue my education there. The university opened again two years later and I considered going back, but in the end decided that it wasn’t actually worth it. I could see that many of my friends from the Chin ethnic group simply found it impossible to get a job, even with a degree.

There is a huge amount of discrimination against Chin people – if you are not from the Burmese ethnic group it is extremely difficult to have a career. You have to convert from Christianity to Buddhism if you want to move up.

In 2003, I became Youth Director at a church, doing community work and providing counselling for kids and young adults. The church was illegal in the eyes of the government and we had to be very careful. More and more Chin people started moving from Chin state to Yangon, so our community was growing all the time.

The problems started in 2004, when I took a group of kids on a camping trip to the countryside. One of the kids was run over by a military motorbike. The law says that if a pedestrian is hit by a vehicle, the driver has to pay the medical costs. When the military refused to pay, I wrote a letter to complain that nobody was taking responsibility. They almost arrested me. The Church Pastor advised me not to take things further because he was worried about the consequences for my safety. The military took my address in Yangon, but let me go home.

The following year, I wanted to run a residential activity camp for kids in the church. The Church leaders were worried, because they knew that the military were watching the building.

On the second day of the camp, I went out shopping to get some supplies. Whilst I was out, the military raided the building and arrested the Church Pastor and four others. Somebody managed to call me and tell me what had happened. They told me to hide, because the military knew that I was involved and had my address. I hid at a friend’s place for a week, during which time the military went to my family home and threatened my mum.

I just didn’t know what to do. (more…)

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