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Tuesday, 19 September 2017 00:00

UNHCR and Tzu Chi Collaborate on Refugee Aid

Written by  Low Siew Lian & Yong Siew Lee, Malacca / Translated by Connie Yew

Tzu Chi volunteers explained to Abdul Rahman on their purpose of visit. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]

UNHCR received appeals for help from refugees residing in southern region of Peninsular Malaysia. However, due to shortage of manpower to conduct assessments and carry out relief work, they sought the strength of Tzu Chi volunteers and entrusted Tzu Chi to manage matters relating to the cash aid.


This project is in addition to the existing collaborations between Tzu Chi and UNHCR on medical services and education for refugees. To-date, Tzu Chi KL & Selangor had conducted home visits on 500 refugee families, with 20% of them receiving assistance. This time, with the initiation of the relief aid in southern region and after a briefing session, volunteers in Malacca has begun to carry out home visits and make initial evaluations.

According to statistics released by UNHCR, there are 150,000 registered refugees in Malaysia, and the number of non-documented ones is trifold. As Malaysia did not sign the “1951 Refugee Convention”, refugees who entered Malaysia are considered illegal immigrants and are not protected by law. To earn a living, they have to work without permit, under the peril of being caught and detained by the authorities, and risk the consequences of being locked up or repatriated to their respective home countries. Most of them are engaged in high risk or strenuous jobs with low wages without insurance coverage. Their living conditions are poor, not to mention the opportunities to education and medical care.

Although UNHCR and the governmental agencies have been working together with some civil organizations to protect the refugees and ensure that their basic rights and needs are cared for, they still received many phone calls from refugees. Due to manpower constraint and that many cases concerned were only contactable via phone, they faced challenges in providing timely care and help. Through their interactions with Tzu Chi KL & Selangor over the past decade, they came to gradually understand Tzu Chi’s concepts of charity missions.

Due to limited human resources, they resort to cooperate with governmental organizations, as well as, non-governmental organizations to protect and assist refugees’ basic welfare and needs. UNHCR and Tzu Chi KL & Selangor have been jointly offering care and concern to refugees for more than a decade, and the interactive effect has brought about closer mutual relationship and trustworthiness on the execution of charity mission as observed by UNHCR. Hence, in August 2016, a special case for investigation, named “CBI-Cash-based Interventions” (CBI), was proposed and introduced to facilitate closer cooperation.

The CBI is a scheme and not an instrument. Its main objective is to provide aid to those who lost their sources of income temporarily and those who face a major crisis in life. For example, those who are disabled or in need of care takers, victims of sexual violence, homeless refugee orphans, lonely elderly without anyone to depend on, single-parent families, as well as, cases where the breadwinners passed away, or are caught by authorities or missing from home. Following a set of guidelines and standard criterion, those who are qualified for the aid will be given vouchers or cash, to enable them to cope with their daily meals, accommodation, health care, and other basic needs.

It requires a lot of manpower for UNHCR to carry out the project. With the long-term relationship with Tzu Chi on the earlier collaborations, they entrusted the latter to manage matters relating to the cash aid. So far, volunteers from Tzu Chi KL & Selangor have conducted visitations on 500 refugee families, out of which, 20% were given help.

Other than Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, there are refugees in other states of Malaysia, including 12,000 in Negeri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor. About 90% of the refugees in Malaysia are Rohingyas and people of other ethnic groups from Myanmar. Having received requests for help for refugees in the three states, a briefing was conducted at Tzu Chi Malacca premises on September 1.

Letchimi Doraisamy, CBI person-in-charge from UNHCR; Law Teng How and Ng Poh Eng, Song Quek Khian, Lim Mei Mei and Chew Bee Pheng, coordinating volunteers, Deputy CEO and staff of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor respectively, arrived at Tzu Chi Malacca that afternoon to brief 65 volunteers from the southern region on the procedures of the CBI scheme.

The briefing started with Teng How sharing on the origins of the collaboration and some actual cases, followed by explanations of the project contents by Letchimi, and its standard operating procedures by Mei Mei. This project is similar to that of Tzu Chi’s charity cases as it also involves assessments through home visits (using Livelihood Vulnerability Assessment Tool, LVAT) and Post Distribution Monitoring (PDM). The difference is that after the home visits, volunteers are required to key in the data into the CBI system to compute the CBI amount for a period of three months (one cycle). Reviews will be conducted after the lapse of a cycle.

After the briefing, volunteers in southern region kick-started home visits based on the name list provided by UNHCR. Their main task is to assess the refugees’ basic living needs. But other areas of needs, such as, health care, education, legal consultation and mental/emotional aspects discovered during the course of interaction, can be reported for separate handling.

At last a reply

On September 19, volunteer Koh Geok Ping, liaison for Tzu Chi Chapters in southern region for the said project, failed to see refugee Abdul Rahman bin Sultan at the agreed meeting point. She then contacted him and finally, he was spotted by the roadside further down from the meeting venue. He was a young man with a walking stick.

The volunteers were led to a shabby house with five or six partitioned rooms, and Abdul Rahman occupied one of them. There was a bed and a washbasin in the room, with clothes either hanging on the walls or by the bed. The only light source during daytime was the natural light through the skylight.

Twenty-two-year-old Abdul Rahman fled from Myanmar at the age of 15, due to poverty and destruction of his hometown. On the refugee boat, he was implicated in a dispute and his right eye was hit by lime powder, causing a blurry vision. Seven years have passed, yet he could not afford to seek treatment for his eye. Three months ago, when he was rushing to work (as a security guard at a motorcycle parking zone), he met with an accident. His right leg was injured and he had to undergo a surgery to fix it using metal plates. All his savings were used up for the surgery, and as his only brother was in the US and could only offer him limited financial aid, he could not go to the hospital for follow-up visits or rehabilitation.

Since then, he had been depending on his relatives and friends for his livelihood. After several applications to UNHCR for aid, his cries for help were finally answered, with a group of uniformed strangers (Tzu Chi volunteers) turning up to see him. They explained to him that the purpose of their visit was to collect all the required information for further assessment, to determine what sort of assistance should be given.

A very kind volunteer, He Ji Sheng, then went to a nearby grocery shop to buy some bread for Abdul Rahman and his relatives staying next door. His relatives’ condition was worrying as the father was the sole breadwinner for the family of seven, and the mother was four months pregnant. Their eldest son had been staying home without work for three months, due to frequent raids by the authorities, and the whereabouts of their 15-year-old second son was unknown, following an arrest on his way to work.

Begging for assistance

Another Myanmar refugee, Asmat Ali, lives in a rural area in Malacca together with his wife, Shamin Bai, and their two-year-old daughter. Asmat Ali arrived in Malaysia 20 years ago, and used to work as a welder in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Due to his deteriorating health and the high cost of living in Kuala Lumpur, the family later relocated to Malacca.

Forty-year-old Asmat Ali suffers from hepatitis B and varicose veins. Recently, his health deteriorated further with frequent palpitations. All he could do was to sell religious books in nearby villages a few times a week to earn a little profit, while his wife took care of their little daughter at home. The family eventually fell into financial distress. They were two months in arrears for their room rental, and the electricity bill was nine months overdue.

Asmat Ali was choked with tears as he mentioned his medical treatment. Although he is a UNHCR ID cardholder and is entitled for discounts on his medical bills, as a foreigner, it was still a heavy burden on his shoulders. He was also worried about his health, and more so, his family if something unfortunate were to befall him.

He pleaded to the volunteers, “I beg you, please assist us.” Geok Ping assured him that they would compile the data collected and submit them to UNHCR for further assessments, and revert to them soon.

After the home visits, Geok Ping immediately keyed in the data for the system to auto- compute whether the families concerned met the criterion and identify the amount of subsidy.

A ray of hope for the helpless

This time, a total of 30 cases were passed to Tzu Chi Chapters in southern Malaysia by UNHCR. Ten of the cases are in Seremban, seven in Ulu Tiram, five in Malacca, three each in Kluang and Muar, and two in Kota Tinggi. Among them, six cases could not be reached, two refused assistance, one is residing in Kuala Lumpur, and another has relocated to another state.

The farthest family is the one in Ulu Tiram, about an hour’s drive away. Volunteers took about a week to locate another family who lives on the outskirts of Kluang. The refugee concerned has blurred vision and needs to travel to Tzu-Chi Free Clinic in Kuala Lumpur for check-up monthly. His eldest son’s family of five had actually obtained permits to relocate to the US, however, feeling sorry to leave the father here alone, they chose to stay by his side.

Lin Shiow Fong, a Tzu Chi staff, expressed that Tzu Chi Kluang did offer help to refugees before. However, there were many more similar cases and the volunteers did not know where to start. Now, with the collaboration with UNHCR, volunteers are more optimistic that they could really help the refugees.

Refugees are not those who left their home countries due to economic reasons or for better material life. They are those who fled their home countries because of war, armed conflicts, serious human rights issues, and other concerns. Whether they are refugees or asylum seekers, they are people who are helpless in foreign lands and are faced with many unbearable challenges.

For the volunteers, whose main medium of communication is Chinese, to write reports in English is something they need to improve on. Besides, they also face communication problems with the refugees, especially when there is no interpreter around. They have to use their body language to aid the communication. Nonetheless, they accepted the tasks with pure minds and determination to help the refugees who are in dire needs.

Although the collaboration with UNHCR has just kick-started, Chiew Lay Choo, a Tzu Chi staff with the Social Service team, is of the opinion that this is an opportunity to learn from each other. For example, the computerized assessment system by UNHCR serves as a good reference for the Charity Group when assessing the cases of probable aid recipients, while maintaining the care for subjects concerned. Lay Choo shared, “It is good to have a system, but volunteers should still visit the subjects concerned to assess their needs, care for them personally, and make the necessary adjustments from time to time, so as to provide more pragmatic aid.”

 

 

Letchimi Doraisamy from UNHCR briefed the 65 Tzu Chi volunteers from southern Malaysia on the scope and contents of the project. [Photograph by Alex Tan Ah Lek]   Koh Geok Ping, liaison for Tzu Chi Chapters in southern region for the project with UNHCR, conducted home visits together with volunteers in Malacca. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]

Letchimi Doraisamy from UNHCR briefed the 65 Tzu Chi volunteers from southern Malaysia on the scope and contents of the project. [Photograph by Alex Tan Ah Lek]
 
Koh Geok Ping, liaison for Tzu Chi Chapters in southern region for the project with UNHCR, conducted home visits together with volunteers in Malacca. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]
 
Asmat Ali, who was burdened with his medical bills, shed tears when he mentioned about his treatment. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]   Volunteer Koh Geok Ping and Tzu Chi staff, Chiew Lay Choo, keyed in the data collected and double checked the entry to ensure data accuracy. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]

Asmat Ali, who was burdened with his medical bills, shed tears when he mentioned about his treatment. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]
 
 
Volunteer Koh Geok Ping and Tzu Chi staff, Chiew Lay Choo, keyed in the data collected and double checked the entry to ensure data accuracy. [Photograph by Yong Siew Lee]
 
It took almost a week for Tzu Chi volunteers in Kluang to locate a refugee concerned. Their untiring efforts were to ensure that the refugees could obtain the aid they need. [Photograph by Lim Shiow Fong]  

It took almost a week for Tzu Chi volunteers in Kluang to locate a refugee concerned. Their untiring efforts were to ensure that the refugees could obtain the aid they need. [Photograph by Lim Shiow Fong]