Trigger warning: Death, suicide
The month of August is off to a tragic start. Earlier this week, the death of a woman at Suria KLCC mall by suicide. The incidences of suicide have been on the rise since the pandemic struck in early 2020, with each news leaving us heartbroken.
But, nothing prepared us for the shocking news of how a 38-year-old Burmese man tossed his own two children over the Middle Ring Road 2 (MRR2) and then committed suicide. The survivor of the incident is a 5-year-old boy currently in critical condition at Selayang Hospital.
The man and two kids, a girl and a boy, were killed on the spot while another boy who landed on the grass near the road shoulder was rushed to the Selayang Hospital.
Further examination by medical officers showed that he had broken his left rib and sustained internal abdominal injuries. He is currently in the ICU. – Beh Eng Lai, Sentul district police chief Assistant Commissioner
A wholesaler who bore witness to the incident shared his regret for not interfering timely.
I am very heartbroken and regret not being able to save them. [I didn’t have] the time to react. The children were innocent. Why didn’t he give me two minutes to (change his mind)? If he agreed to get in the car, maybe the children would be safe and sound. – Witness of the tragedy
But, the incident also cast light on the refugee and migrant group’s state of mental health in Malaysia.
The deceased widow, Aye Aye, shared that her husband has been exhibiting signs and symptoms of depression since last year. He was under constant pressure to find better accommodation for his family and to obtain United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documentation for his youngest child.
Without a UNHCR card, the refugee community is susceptible to treatment similar to an illegal immigrant and when discovered by authorities, thrown into a detention centre.
As we urge more of our citizens to seek mental health assistance, we neglect to check on the 182,960 registered refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia in 2022.
Haunted By A Lasting Trauma
Refugees’ entry to our country is often driven by traumatic events in their countries; war, political persecution, and ethnic cleansing that places their lives in danger. Many participate in arduous journeys in the hope of arriving in a country that will welcome them and keep them safe. But, they carry with them lasting mental scars.
Even in the best possible conditions, migration is stressful and most people move in ways that are far from ideal; the stress of migration, travel conditions, and the causes that prompted migration in the first place, can all adversely affect mental health. – UCL–Lancet Commission on Migration and Health
Data from a local NGO, Health Equity Initiatives (HEI) through their work with refugees and migrant workers shared that among its patients, 42% of Sri Lankans, 25% of Burmese, 8% of Afghans and 8% of Pakistani suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). More than half (63% of patients exhibiting PTSD symptoms) have experienced torture.
Treated As Unwelcomed Guests
Once they arrive in the host country, they are faced with multiple changes in a country that does not legally recognise them. Refugees are unable to work legally in Malaysia leaving their families vulnerable to poverty, exploitation and health problems.
Not only do they not have the right to work, but they are also unable to access affordable healthcare and structured education for their children. – Joint statement from Beyond Borders and the Alliance of Chin Refugees in response to the recent tragic incident at MRR2
Some settle on low-paying, unskilled jobs and often earn less than the poverty-line income (PLI) of RM 800 per household monthly. Invisible in this country, many faces limited access to services such as health care and education.
Undocumented people in Malaysia are trapped in a vicious cycle, which they pay for with their physical and mental health. – Beatrice Lau, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Malaysia
In Selayang, where the incident took place, the refugees and the local communities live side by side but with some resentment as shown in newspaper headlines.
The refugee community’s living conditions left much to be desired. In the case of the deceased, his widow, Aye Aye, relayed that despite ten years of living in Malaysia, they have been renting a room with two other refugee families.
Many live in fear of being deported or thrown into detention centres despite carrying the UNHCR card.
Refugees have been rounded up in immigration raids and this has created huge fears while severely affecting their freedom of movement. Even having a UNHCR card doesn’t guarantee they won’t get arrested by the police or immigration. – Joint statement from Beyond Borders and the Alliance of Chin Refugees in response to the recent tragic incident at MRR2
The existing trauma of leaving their hometown in the back of their minds and the added stress from the environment sees refugees to suffer from mental health issues.
The majority of the refugees have depression and anxiety disorders. There are those who come from war-torn countries. We have those who suffer from PTSD. Sometimes, they experience psychosis. – Bo Min Naing, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia
Pushed To The Edge During The Pandemic
We have seen how the pandemic has pushed many to the edge, as the added pressure of isolation and financial insecurities have mercilessly taken their toll.
This harrowing situation however is more pronounced in the refugee and undocumented community behind closed doors.
The loss of jobs, inability to feed their families or pay rent and the lack of a safe passage to seeking asylum are some of the reasons refugees are forced to commit suicide. – Joint statement from Beyond Borders and the Alliance of Chin Refugees in response to the recent tragic incident at MRR2 
The deceased Burmese father was unable to find a proper job to support his family and has failed to acquire UNHCR documentation for the youngest member of his family. This follows the UNHCR decision to halt providing the ethnic Chins with refugee protection in 2019 .
Many were living with their basic needs unmet, laid off from their jobs and what’s worse biting their nails as authorities have set them as targets for raids.
They have no money. That is one. The other is fear. You know what has been happening lately in Malaysia? They are rounding up all the illegal immigrants. – Bo Min Naing, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia
Some ethnic groups such as the Rohingya have been attacked mercilessly on social media as xenophobic sentiments became louder.
So it’s not just the pandemic, these problems have been going on even before the pandemic started, it has worsened with the pandemic because now people are making comments on social media about refugees, and asylum seekers and making them feel even more unwanted than before. – Matilda Xavier, a clinical psychologist at ACTS
Help Is Limited Should They Need It
Like a stretched rubber band, the refugee community’s sole focus is to survive and many do not understand that they are experiencing serious mental health issues.
The deceased has shown signs and symptoms of depression since last year, but it was unknown whether he had sought out mental help assistance.
Added with the limited awareness and access to mental health information due to the language barrier, many refugees are suffering in silence.
I’m always thinking a lot. And blue most of the time. My mind is not working, because I have a lot of problems – Excerpt from a study conducted by Shaw, Pillai and Ward in 2018
In 2012, less than 5% of Myanmar refugees had received mental treatment despite mental and emotional distress common in the community.
Most of the refugees don’t know [what they’re experiencing] is concerned with mental health. They are often in difficult living conditions and sometimes unaware that they are suffering from mental health issues. – Bo Min Naing, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia
Sometimes the reluctance to seek help is because they do not have the means to travel to the dedicated government hospitals or NGOs providing mental health assistance.
A Plea For Consideration And Acceptance
We may not know the reason behind what pushed the father of three children to hurl his children and himself over the MRR2 highway, but it raised the alarm to local NGOs working with the marginalised community.
Beyond Borders and the Alliance of Chin Refugees have urged the government to ease the added pressure the current reins have placed on refugee groups. This includes the immigration raids, the lack of aid packages dispatched to the community and cordoning off the immigration detention centres from UNHCR’s entry.
The pervasive fear of any interaction with the authorities, a life with side-eye glances from your neighbours, and the bombardment of hate messages towards your presence in the country while thinking about how to feed your family and yourself tomorrow; all of these stressors sums up the experience refugees face daily.
Now, with the increasing price of goods and inflation, lives are throwing the worst cards to the marginalised communities.
To the refugee community, a little kindness goes a long way. We could be a part of stopping another tragedy from taking place.
Be aware that refugees are also human beings who are actually going through problems, and acceptance, will help a lot towards their mental health. Till today, people don’t seem to be aware that a lot of the staff in restaurants are actually asylum seekers and refugees. – Bo Min Naing, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia
Keyboard warriors may incite hatred towards the community by labelling them as “pendatang” or “troublemakers”. But many are living honestly and only want to be accepted.
I never lose hope that once people know the actual situation and reality of refugees and migrants’ stories and struggles, they will understand why we ended up here [in Malaysia] for the time being. – Hasnah Hussin, a Rohingya refugee born in Malaysia who works as a community mobiliser for the migrant rights group Tenaganita
In the aftermath of the event, the widow of the deceased, Aye Aye, is currently being provided with psychosocial support from UNHCR.
If you are keen to extend a helping hand either through volunteering, supporting or directing a neighbour from the marginalised communities, consider the following non-governmental organisations providing free and affordable mental health consultations:
>> A Call To Serve (ACTS) has been working with refugees since 2003 through a mobile clinic and a static clinic in Brickfields.
>> Johor Outreach and Community Center – JOCC, the centre started its operation at the height of the pandemic in 2020, the centre is the first outreach centre dedicated to the refugee community in Johor.
>> Health Equity Initiatives started in 2007 and have worked tirelessly in providing mental health assistance to refugees in Klang Valley by working closely with the communities.
>> HumanKind Jalan Universiti offers mental health and psychosocial support through their BuddyBear helpline and text support on Facebook. The organisation also provides an appointment-basis online and physical counselling for children.
>> Médecins Sans Frontières has been serving refugee and undocumented migrant communities in Penang since 2015 by running mobile clinics. In 2018, the organisation established a basic healthcare clinic in Butterworth, where most undocumented migrants and refugees reside.
>> Qatar Fund For Development Clinic is run by NGOs such as IMARET, Mercy Malaysia and the Malaysian Relief Agency (MRA). Their reach includes locations with densely populated undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugee populations such as Ampang, Selayang, Kota Tinggi and Sungai Petani.
>> Tzu Chi Foundation Malaysia Free Clinic is open to the public and the vulnerable communities who seek mental help and medical services.
Explore our sources:
- New Straits Times. (2022). Myanmar man tosses three kids off MRR2, jumps soon after. Link
- H.F.Rozeman. (2022). MRR2 Tragedy: Passer-By Regrets Not Stopping Dad From Throwing His 3 Children Off Bridge. SAYS. Link
- A.Alhadjri & H.Mohd. (2022).Campak anak dari jejambat: Balu bergantung ihsan aktivis, rakan. Malaysiakini. Link
- UNHCR Malaysia. (2022). Figures at a glance. Link
- I.Abu Bakar & R.W.Alridge. (2018). The UCL–Lancet Commission on Migration and Health: the health of a world on the move. Lancet. Link
- Health Equity Initiatives. (n.d.). Life as a Refugee. Link
- Tay AK , Mohsin M , Hau KM et al. (2020). Variations in prevalence and risk profiles for common mental disorders amongst Rohingya, Chin and Kachin refugees from Myanmar. Psychol Med. Link
- FMT Reporters. (2022). Ease pressure on refugees or more could take their lives, govt told. Free Malaysia Today. Link
- Médecins Sans Frontières.(2019). Healthcare for struggling refugee communities in Malaysia.Link
- K.Anissa. (2021). COVID-19’s Mental Health Impact: How Are Refugees Coping? New Naratif. Link
- R.AGE. (n.d.). Refugees No More. Link
- S.Shaw., V.Pillai & K.P.Ward. (2018). Assessing mental health and service needs among refugees in Malaysia. International Journal of Social Welfare Link
- A.Smith (2012). In search of survival and sanctuary in the city: Refugees from Myanmar/Burma in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. New York: International Rescue Committee.Link
- E.Fishbein & J.T.Hwkang. (2020). ‘The Fear Is Always With Me’: Refugees in Malaysia Recount Recent Lockdowns and Raids. New Naratif. Link