KUALA LUMPUR: Discreetly tucked away behind a squeaky wooden door in a quiet neighbourhood outside Kuala Lumpur lies an unlicensed bird’s nest factory that churns out hundreds of pieces of the luxurious delicacy each day.
Highly sought after by the Chinese for its supposed nutritional value, bird’s nests – which are made from solidified saliva of swiftlets – can easily fetch more than US$3,000 per kilogram.
But before they are sold to consumers, they have to be cleaned thoroughly – a tedious process that can take hours.
Rohingya refugees – many who are women and children – are hired to do the job.
The bird’s nests have to be cleaned thoroughly before they are sold to consumers. (Photo: Melissa Goh)
Using tweezers, they remove feathers and other impurities from the bird’s nests, bit by bit.
This is how 13-year-old Abdul, not his real name, has spent most of his time the last couple of months. His mother had paid a local agent to bring him to Malaysia last October, following the flare-up of violence in his village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Seated quietly in rows, Abdul and the other Rohingya refugees work nine hours a day, with an hour’s break for lunch.
According to their minder, the refugees get paid about US$10 a day if they clean 10 pieces of bird’s nest.
When Abdul first started working at the factory, he was only able to clean three bird’s nests a day. Now, he is able to clean between eight and 10 pieces.
He says he like it at the factory as it provides a roof over his head and helps him learn new skills. It also helps that the room they work in is brightly lit and air-conditioned.
He hopes to be able to go to school one day.
The refugees get paid about US$10 a day if they can finish cleaning 10 pieces of bird’s nest. (Photo: Melissa Goh)
Abdul, like many of the Rohingya teenagers who fled to Malaysia, do not have relatives with them.
So they are put under the care of members of local Rohingya communities, and in return for a roof over their heads, food and some private tuition, they work.
But like all refugees in Malaysia, Abdul and his fellow Rohingyas are working illegally in this country.
As refugees, they have no legal status and are not allowed to work, nor do they have access to healthcare and government schools.
The representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia, Richard Towle, described the situation as a catch-22 for these children.
“If they’re not in the workforce earning money, then they might be on the streets begging, where they’re highly vulnerable. So it’s a choice between a rock and a hard place,” said Towle.
“If you’re being asked to work in sweatshops, is that better than working on the streets and begging?”
Using tweezers, the refugees have to remove feathers and other impurities from the bird’s nests.
He believes that these children ought to be in school and should not be working. The children are not doing this work because they want to, it’s because of financial and family pressures, he says.
By turning a blind eye to such child labour practices, this damages the children’s future and also condemns their communities to poverty, Towle added.
But the agency’s hands are tied, he said, adding that there are currently 133 learning centres registered with UNHCR that cater to the needs of refugee children.
The facilities, however, are hardly enough given the size of the refugee population. There are currently about 150,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, with more than a quarter of them below the age of 18.
Only slightly more than 2,000 of them have been resettled in a third country.
With the US as the largest recipient, and cutting its refugee intake to 46,000, chances of resettlement for these Rohingyas appear slimmer than ever, said Towle.
“Here we have a group of very vulnerable children, who are going to be in Malaysia for a while … it makes sense to get them into a schooling system that everybody recognises. If we don’t, they will continue to be a burden on Malaysia.”
UNHCR has reached out to Malaysia’s education ministry to assist the learning centres that are currently run by volunteers, by incorporating the national school syllabus so that children of Rohingya refugees can easily blend in and become part of the country’s workforce when they grow up.
The agency hopes that Malaysia will relook its policy on refugees and asylum seekers and allow them to work legally in this country.
“As long as we keep refugees as illegals, and as long as we treat them as the criminals, they will be exploited, and women and kids will be the most vulnerable, the most exploited,” said Towle.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention and is not bound by international laws to provide refuge, asylum, jobs and education to refugees.
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