Blooming business for refugees

PETALING JAYA - It is a spot well known for its nightlife, where adults spend their time consuming alcohol and dancing the night away.

But among the well-dressed men and women out to have a night of fun and laughter, it is not uncommon to see little children making their way along Jalan Changkat.

They sell roses till the clubs close and the last of the customers leave.

"Please buy one," said a little girl to The Star Online reporter, with a sweet smile and an innocent look.

When asked how much a bouquet of flowers cost, the child said that it was RM10.

When questioned further, the girl who only wanted to be known as Siti, said that she was a Roghinya refugee and sold flowers to help her family make ends meet.

"My father does not have a proper job, so I sell flowers with my sisters and brothers," said the nine-year-old in fluent Malay.

Claiming that her mother was selling flowers in Bukit Bintang, Siti said that the money that her siblings and she earned was what kept the family going.

"Our mother will come to pick us up later. We are not afraid here because we have friends and the people who work here look out for us," Siti said when asked if was safe to be working so late at night.

The girl also claimed that she went to a school in Ampang during the day. "It is tiring but we do not have a choice," she said.

The children stayed on Jalan Changkat till about 3 am and disappeared into the night after all the clubs closed.

All the children there seemed to be friendly and willing to answer any questions thrown at them, although the answers seemed rehearsed and similar.

There were at least 12 children at the spot on the day our team was there, and none of them were above the age of 13.

What happens to the children when they hit puberty and no longer attract the same kind of sympathy?

Another child, who said that her name was Ruby. was very friendly and talkative until she noticed a reporter using a phone with the back camera lens facing her.

"Are you taking a picture? Please delete it," said the feisty 11-year-old before walking away.

Later the night, the same girl scolded the reporter for being at a convenience store, where a gray Wira picked her and some of the other children up after their 'shift'. "Can you please get out and stop following us!"she yelled.

With them was a woman, who earlier had claimed to be the children's mother.

"We are refugees. We can't get proper jobs so I do not have a choice but to make my children do these kind of jobs," she said.

The woman even showed a United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) card declaring her as a refugee.

"All my children were born here. My eldest daughter is already 15 years old but we are just refugees. We can not get proper jobs to support ourselves," she said.

While the children and the woman said that they were looking for ways to support themselves, some of the workers there claimed that something more sinister was going on.

Some of the bouncers claimed that syndicates were involved in this and the 'mothers' segregate and monitor the tasks of the girls.

"The syndicates will not be here (Changkat) for long. They will allow the girls to do the job and once it's 3am, they will fetch these girls.

"The 'mothers' will monitor them and these syndicates just collect the money from these children. I guess the children will be provided some money and most of the children that I've met said they go to school," said a bouncer who hails from Kelantan.

He added that the children were friendly and they mingle well with the bouncers. "They want to do their business. To do so, they will be friendly with us. These children are okay," he said.

A patron at one of the clubs said that he always saw the kids there. "Once I threatened the kids, who then brought me to see the man who picks them up after they were done. "The man seemed like someone you would not want to mess with but he told me that the children were well taken care of and were sent to school," he said, adding that the man even showed pictures of the children's home.

"I think it is wrong but if they get food and education that they would not otherwise, who are we to say anything?" he questioned.

When contacted about the issue, UNCHR spokesperson Yante Ismail said that that refugees are unable to work legally in Malaysia, forcing them to look for jobs in informal sectors.

"They are often subject to exploitation including being paid extremely low wages for working long hours, or sometimes, no wages at all," she said.

"Families often find it difficult to earn sufficient income for their needs. There have been cases where refugee youths and children have been forced to find odd jobs in order to help augment their families' income," she said.

She added that as in most communities, it was poverty and desperation that drove families to allow children to go out and work.

"Moreover, there are cases when the head of household is unable to work, and in such circumstances, mothers and children are forced to find odd jobs."

"This can include working in dangerous conditions where they are vulnerable to exploitation or criminal elements," she said.

Yante said that the most practical and humanitarian solution to improve the living conditions of refugees in Malaysia would be to provide them with opportunities for self-reliance, including allowing them to work legally.

"Many refugee men and women are skilled and are able to contribute to the Malaysian economy. "With regular income, they would be better able to meet the basic needs of their families, including in food, shelter and healthcare, and in supporting their children's education," she said.

When asked if it was possible for the children to be going to school, as they claimed, Yante said that refugee children did not have access to formal education.

According to UNCHR statistics, there are about 31,000 refugee children below the age of 18 registered with them and over 17,000 of the children were of school-going age.

However, it is estimated that only 35 per cent of the children have access to any kind of education.

"This means approximately 65 per cent of refugee children of school going age are not in school.

"Those children who do have access to some kind of educational programme attend informal learning centres or community-based schooling that are set up and run by NGOs or by refugee communities themselves," said Yante, adding that there were about 130 such informal schools in the country.

Ultimately it is tragic that children have to spend their nights trawling our streets to earn a little cash. Surely something needs to be done.

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