Thursday, May 22, 2014

Predators on the prowl in Setapak

I have just met up with a few Myanmar refugees who are residents at the Danau Kota flats off Jalan Genting Klang, Setapak. They have been living there on the upper floors of these low cost flats between 4 and 10 years, earning a simple livelihood teaching in a refugee school while minding their own business, waiting to be resettled in a third country.

As Joan tells it, “The crime is getting worse. It was a safer place last time, but not now.” The situation has become so bad, many refugee families are afraid to leave their home or take the lift up to their floor, she added. Others have decided to move away from Setapak.

The robbers, they are Malaysians, I interjected?

“Yes. Many live here also and we know where they live. They wait for us. Nowadays there is a robbery nearly everyday. More than 10 gangsters usually wait around the lift, and some of their friends wait on the 1st or 2nd or 3rd floor. When they see a Myanmar coming, they whistle like this (she makes a bird sound) or make some signal. Then they surround you.”

Family man and fellow teacher George nodded. “My wife works in the restaurant and comes home at midnight. It’s very frightening for my wife, so we moved to another flat with security nearby. A bit more expensive, but safer.”

You have been robbed? “Sure, a couple of times,” George said. “They surround us, take our wallets, our handphones. If you are slow, they hit you or show you a knife. That's why I walk with my wife back from work at night.”

George explained that Myanmar refugees working the night shift are most at risk. “The robbers know we come home at 3 or 4 am, so they wait. These gangsters always wait in groups. So we wait until they go away before we go home, sometimes using the fire escape stairs.”

The Danau Kota flats in Setapak are a low cost maximum density housing development comprising five 18-floor blocks. Most of the units are about 700 square foot each on average. Small, compact, with 3 rooms and a bathroom. Community facilities are limited and dilapidated, hygiene is lacking, and basic amenities such as lifts are constantly broken.

The problem is exacerbated in this aging development (nearly 20 years old) by poor essential maintenance and complete indifference of residents and housing authorities alike. No wonder it has become a breeding ground for crime. Gangs operate openly while residents have learned to look the other way.

Like low-cost housing everywhere in the city, the Danau Kota flats attract a large number of undocumented migrant workers and refugees. As condominiums and shopping malls sprouted overnight on tracts of ex-mining land, the promise of employment lured newly arrived foreigners here, many of whom are Myanmars, away from familiar but crowded refugee enclaves in the city.

“My wife is so scared we moved to another area. She said at work, already scared of boss. Walking home, scared of police. Reach the flat, scared of gangsters,” George smiled warily.

What makes matters worse is that the authorities are no help either. Having accompanied Myanmars to the Police Station to lodge reports, I have witnessed first-hand how our men in blue treat these unwelcomed foreigners. They are easy pickings too. And more trouble for you if you do not have an UNHCR Refugee card.

Peter who has been here for ten years told of an incident that happened last month. A young Myanmar man was accosted after work near the lift by 6 local youths, one armed with a knife. In the tussle, the Myanmar grabbed the knife and ran for his life. Speaking in Bahasa, Peter said, “Itu geng, dia orang jerit, ‘Tolong! Ada Myanmar perompak bawa pisau.’ Lepas itu, orang lain pun kejar sambil orang Myanmar kena tangkap. Dia kena hentam juga. Kami punya komuniti bayar Polis RM5000 bagi dia bebas.”

Malaysians have become brazen predators preying on helpless refugees. And it appears no one is surprised.

On another occasion I was summoned to help out a Myanmar refugee who did not have an UNHCR card. There he was looking like a trapped animal, his eyes fixed on the floor, while 4 other unsmiling policemen sat with him in a sidewalk mamak store, pulling on their cigarettes. A spokesman took me to a side and told me that RM300 would help the Myanmar. “Kalau kita hantar ke Immigresen, lagi teruk. Kena bayar RM3000.”

It’s hard not to be cynical about law enforcement, human rights and justice in our blighted nation. But by sitting on our hands we lose the right to complain.

Tomorrow, my friend and church community liaison Ravee and I are accompanying 3 Myanmar victims to the court. All three – they are unrelated - were robbed during a particularly violent weekend blitz in November last year.

According toThanga, two men broke into his home in broad daylight, held a knife to his young daughter and robbed his family. Thankfully these robbers were apprehended - now that's something you don't see everyday! Well done!

So these saksi-saksi who were subpoenaed to testify will have their first taste of Malaysia’s legal system. What stories will they tell when this episode is finally over? The case has been postponed twice already. I hope for their sake the wheels of justice will turn in their favour. For once.

 (All names have been changed to protect their identity)