Women living in the cities survive with resilience

Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy
Fr Bernard was the regional director of JRS Asia Pacific from 2005-2012. Born in Malaysia, he spent two years working with JRS Malaysia and joined the JRS AP team again five years later as regional director.
Sunday, October 09, 2011

I left her wondering how someone who has suffered and lost so much remain serene while offering hospitality to a stranger. She was a petit woman living in a refugee settlement going about her daily chores, when I dropped by to visit her. After our chat, I thought to myself, “She lives with her full dignity, undiminished despite having to flee her country to seek refuge; no signs of bitterness and anger; only warm hospitality, and cheerful ownership of her life in all its joys and sorrows. 

I see many women every day at our office in Bangkok. Women wait to speak to our Urban Refugee Project staff. Some wait with young children, others alone. Some live in the city alone because their husbands are in the immigration detention centre. Others’ husbands are back in their home country or dead. 

While the women I see — from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Congo and other African nations — are incredibly resilient dignified, they are living in an almost impossible situation or just trying to survive in Bangkok. 

Most people who flee their home countries to seek asylum in Bangkok wait here for two to three years to be determined a refugee, and if at all, for resettlement. While waiting, they are not allowed to work legally. Without the language skills or money, their children are unable to go to school. They stay home every day anxiously hoping that they do not hear a knock on the door; for it could be immigration authorities coming to arrest and detain them for overstaying their visas while waiting for their refugee cases to be decided.

They are not asking much; they have the same dreams and desires as the rest of humanity. They do not want to rely on financial assistance from NGOs. They would like to be treated with dignity. They want to live and work peacefully. They need the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) to classify them as refugees and resettle them to a safe country quickly.

However, reality is less kind to them. The needs that they long for seem distant. They are unable to work, at least according to the narrow confines of the law, which can leave women vulnerable. Women are at risk of being trafficked and being trapped in the sex industry. They face double jeopardy—desperate for their safety and their children’s, they flee another country where their safety is not guaranteed. 

Muznah (see pages 8-12) lives in Bangkok with her four children. She cannot return to Sri Lanka, and after being denied refugee status, she receives no assistance. With no money or support system, she is unsure how to survive in the city while she appeals her case. All she can do is wait.

To be in solidarity with the rest of humanity, each of us needs to understand the vulnerability and risks refugees and displaced people face every day. We need to walk with them, give them a chance to develop the skills they have to earn them money during their stay. We appeal to governments and international agencies to look beyond political interests to make it easier for refugees and displaced people to be able to work and earn a living during their stay here and provide alternatives to keeping people in detention centres, the impact of which on women and children is obvious.

Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy, SJ
Regional Director JRS Asia Pacific