By Zoe Stewart

Last week, in the CandleLighters Volunteer Program in Malaysia, I spent a few days shadowing one of SUKA Society’s Case Managers, as he met with newly-referred unaccompanied minors who are living in the community in Kuala Lumpur. From this experience, it was made very apparent the desperate need for SUKAs Unaccompanied and Separated Children Case Management and Community Placement Program.

SUKA Society assesses new referrals based on their risk of detention, exploitation, harm and homelessness. The primary function of their case management program is to ensure that unaccompanied minors are supported to minimise their risk of arrest and detention and find a safe, supportive and stable living arrangement for them within their own communities.

The unaccompanied minors SUKA has had referred to their program range from 13 to 17 years old. Some have arrived recently and have run out of money to support themselves, others have been here for some time but their living arrangements have fallen through or their circumstances have become complicated due to health issues or other factors. Other organisations, including the UNHCR, make referrals to SUKAs case management program when they are made aware of unaccompanied minors that are at high risk in the community.

Of the handful of assessments undertook last week, the majority were in need of emergency housing and food support. In situations where the need is immediate, SUKA provides temporary housing and food pending entry into the program following relevant assessments.

We went to the apartment SUKA rents – to provide emergency/temporary housing – to meet with the new referrals and bring their monthly fresh and dry food rations. We were also accompanied by a SUKAs community case manager, who is located in the refugee community and assists with referrals, interpreting and program support.

A food donation of mostly potatoes made to young refugees in Malaysia.

Zoe: A food donation made to Unaccompanied and Separated Children in Malaysia.

The program’s need and purpose was made evident on talking with the young boys about their situation in Kuala Lumpur and their journey to Malaysia. The minors we met with were of Hazara and Rohingya backgrounds, all had come alone and made a very hard journey to arrive in Kuala Lumpur.

The journey, particularly for Rohingya asylum seekers, usually involves a lengthy boat ride from Bangladesh into Thailand. After a three-day journey into the jungle it is quite common for asylum seekers to end up in trafficking camps in Southern Thailand. In these camps asylum seekers are held and forced to work until their family pays to have them released.

Once released there is no guarantee of safe passage into Malaysia, they must again put their lives in the hands of someone with the right contacts to get them over the border.

Unaccompanied minors are at a very high risk of exploitation. They are missing the care and protection of their parents or family, and like many asylum seekers they also have the weight of worrying about loved ones left behind to manage and the pressure to financially support them, and there is little protection for them.

In Malaysia there are very few services that support unaccompanied minors and SUKA provides the only holistic case management service for Unaccompanied and Separated Children (UASC) in Malaysia. Those who do not have access to case management have to navigate survival in Malaysia alone and in constant fear of detention while they wait for their registration as a person of concern to UNHCR, Refugee Status Determination, and resettlement in a third country like America or Australia, which can take many years.

The risk of homelessness is very real, as is the risk of exploitation due to the desperation to make enough money to eat and send home. Children can be employed and end up working for little or no pay. These children can easily be forced to work long shifts in exchange for food and board. Work also exposes them to the risk of arrest and detention, as work rights are not granted to refugees or asylum seekers in Malaysia. SUKA aims to meet the basic needs of the minors they work with so they do not have to be exposed to the desperation that leads to such exploitation.

SUKA has also set up a foster care program, and a placement for the boys I met with last week has been found. They will move in with their foster family this week and continuous support will be provided by their case manager and foster care worker to ensure they settle in well and to develop a care plan in collaboration with their placement family.

It was very uplifting to witness these very vulnerable boys be provided with a safe place to live and the necessary items they need to survive. SUKA also has a strong focus on education and all minors that enter the program must prioritise education. SUKA has enrolled the boys into a community school that runs classes specifically for the refugee community.

Children from the Kachin community painting and drawing.

Children from the Kachin community paint and draw at a workshop hosted by SUKA.
Image: Suka Society.

From here, SUKA will continue to case manage the boys until they are resettled, return home (if safe to do so) or turn 18. Work will be done to ensure that they are ready to live independently and are able to support themselves before they are exited.

I am currently working on a monitoring an evaluation framework that will capture the outcomes SUKA is achieving for their clients so the meaningful work the organisation is undertaking can be better articulated and demonstrated.

SUKA’s case management program currently forms part of a pilot project on implementing Alternatives to Detention (ATD) for Unaccompanied and Separated Children in immigration detention. It is hoped that by demonstrating SUKAs effectiveness in supporting UASCs in the community, it could be used as a means for the release of all of these young peoples in detention in Malaysia. For now, it is acting as a very needed prevention tool.

I hope you all have a better sense of the great work that is being undertaken here by SUKA, it is a small organisation but it’s delivering quality programs for the children they service, providing access to the essentials required for them to stay safe and healthy whilst they await an immigration status resolution.