One small family of Burmese refugees living in a dingy tenement on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur has slipped right through the cracks of asylum officialdom, it seems mostly because they wouldn’t abandon their adopted sons in Burma. Ngun Tin Tial has spent the last nine years looking for a better, safer life. She knows almost nothing about the boatloads of asylum-seekers arriving almost daily in Australian waters, but she knows enough to think it is unfair that places which might have been taken by her family have gone to Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Sri Lankans who can afford illicit boat trips to Australia.
Her husband holds down an illegal and poorly-paid job erecting signboards, and they have barely enough to make ends meet, let alone pay people-smugglers perhaps $32,000 for the whole family to get to Australia. “This is not fair,” she said. “Of course we don’t have that sort of money.”
Even if a processing centre was opened in Indonesia this family wouldn’t have the means to get there: too far, too expensive. They can only wait and hope. “It’s extremely hard and difficult for my family,” Ngun Tin Tial added, her voice breaking. “It’s so difficult I can’t speak.”
The 35-year-old from Chin state in western Burma has been stuck in a painful limbo for a long time. She and her husband fled the military in Burma in 2003 and by 2005 she was locked up in one of Malaysia’s infamous immigration detention centres.
She was asked by a UNHCR official visiting the lock-up whether she had any relatives in Australia and she explained her husband’s cousin lived in Melbourne. She and her husband were duly allocated to the Australian lists, and by 2007 they were having their medical checks in the final stages of getting places in Australia.
An official casually asked whether she had any adopted children – the first time the question had arisen. She innocently said yes, she had – the sons of her eldest brother who had died of malaria in Burma. These boys were still in Burma, awaiting the day when Ngun Tin Tial and her husband, Za Thawng Lian, had saved enough money to get them to Malaysia.
She had lived without them for six years before the two teenagers finally arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 2009, ending a forced and painful separation.
Another brother of Ngun Tin Tial’s was a member of the Chin National Front – deemed subversive rebels by the Burmese government at the time, so she and her husband were always careful. On visit to their home village, two days’ journey from their home in the capital of Chin state, they heard the Burmese military were after them. There was no chance to get back to the city to get the boys. She and her husband fled to Kuala Lumpur, got some money together, and began to send it to Burma so the boys – then living in an orphanage for a short spell – could live with their grandparents.
The family will not return to Burma. Even though the new government has made some fundamental changes, Ngun Tin Tial fears that ethnic minorities, such as the Christian Chin, still get a raw deal. Asked if he missed Burma, her adopted son, 17-year-old Samuel Tha Bik Lian, shook his head solemnly.
They are all together now in Kuala Lumpur, but it’s a tough life. Refugees and asylum-seekers are not allowed to work – so Za Thawng Lian works on the sly. “It’s illegal, but as refugees we have to do that,” Ngun Tin Tial said, knowing that her husband could be detained at any time for making a meagre living. “Even if it’s not sufficient, we have to manage; it’s the only income that we have,” she added.
And refugee children are not entitled to an education, so the two boys – Samuel and his younger brother Dawt Cung Hninn, now 15, have been going to a community school, somewhere on the other side of the multi-lane highway that borders their apartment building.
Typical teenaged boys, squinting down at their feet, they listen to their adopted mother’s tales of death and flight and hardship. They are shy – but they seem to know a little about Australia. Samuel has heard of kangaroos and koalas. “And football,” he said, his face lighting up.