Making the Invisible Refugee Population, Visible in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, 24 June 2006 - The photographs on the wall show images of men, women and children in every day life settings - putting on makeup, seeing the doctor, playing games, cooking in a kitchen. What is unique is that these are rare glimpses of the lives of refugees living in urban areas in Malaysia, a population largely unnoticed by Malaysian society at large.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and The Photographers' Gallery today unveiled a photography exhibition entitled "Making the Invisible, Visible" which offers a glimpse of the hidden lives of refugees in Malaysia - not in camps, but in urban settings, in low-cost houses and flats in cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Baru. It depicts images of refugees in their day to day life in Malaysia, images that remain largely invisible to the Malaysian society at large.

This was unveiled by Dr Volker Türk, UNHCR Representative at The Photographers' Gallery in Starhill Gallery, here today. The exhibition will run from 24 June till 23 July 2006 and is open to the public.

"Malaysians are surprised that there are refugees living next door to them, and not in camps as they are accustomed to seeing in the news," said Dr Türk.

"Refugees live in quiet ways within the Malaysian society, till people sometimes do not realise that they exist, nor do they necessarily understand the circumstances that compelled them to flee their homeland with virtually nothing to their names but the clothes on their backs.

UNHCR photographer Sarah Hoibak had captured these images over the course of five months during UNHCR's routine community outreach visits in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. They aim to capture snippets of the lives of refugees who live within an urban setting.

Proceeds of sales of the photographs will go towards a community project aimed at helping refugee children through art and photography, which will be led by the Photographers' Gallery and UNHCR. This collection and the works of other photographers is planned to be auctioned at the end of the exhibition to raise money for the same cause.

These images provide insight into and understanding of the serious social issues affecting the various refugee communities in the country; issues such as struggling to eke a basic living in a new land; dealing with the emotional trauma of flight and losing everything; facing the fear and uncertainty of an unknown future and confronting the misconceptions from local communities.

This collection aims to bring to surface these issues, to put a human face to the refugee statistics, and evoke empathy for refugees' fears and hopes, joys and despair, and make the invisible, visible in the hopes for a better future.

According to Dr Türk, it is important to dispel the damaging myths about refugees as they hinder people from opening their hearts to help refugees.

"One of the misconceptions about refugees is that they are migrants," said Dr Türk. "This is not true, because unlike migrants, refugees do not flee their country for better material improvements and they do not enjoy the protection of their home countries. Refugees cannot return home safely.

"People believe that refugees want to stay in the host country and be parasites," said Dr Türk. "This is not true as refugees' most fervent wish is to return to their own country as soon as possible. However, this is not always possible due to the situation back home."

Dr Türk added that refugees were frequently viewed with distrust and regarded as criminals, a characterisation he vehemently objects to.

"Refugees are afraid of committing crimes in a host country because they do not want to be sent back," Dr Türk. "If you speak with a refugee, you will understand better that they are no different than you and I.

"But the biggest difference is the courage they display. We are humbled by their experience, stunned by their creativity and resourcefulness, as well as deeply grateful for the courage they demonstrate."

This was jointly organised by UNHCR and The Photographers' Gallery, and print sponsored by Epson, in conjunction with World Refugee Day.

© UNHCR 2001 - 2011