After fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar, Mohammed Rashid found himself on a circuitous route to Phnom Penh.
The Rohingya Muslim first travelled to Malaysia before boarding a boat to Australia. He was then sent to the island detention centre on Nauru for almost two years before finally agreeing to resettle in Cambodia under a controversial $A55 million deal.
Now, after spending four months in the Kingdom, Rashid says he is riddled with pain. During an interview with the Post, the bend of his elbow still sporting a small bandage where he had been freshly pricked with needles, he points to the source of his pain just below the sternum.
Intermittently wincing, Rashid said that he now wishes to seek further medical treatment abroad and then return to Cambodia if he is well – most of all, he wants to speak to doctors in his native Rohingya tongue.
Rashid said he became a refugee because Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist population fostered discrimination against his Muslim beliefs. “In Myanmar, I was persecuted and harassed,” Rashid said.
“The police hit me and called me a Muslim – twice this happened.”
Rashid then embarked on a perilous journey to Australia. “It’s better for me to die in a boat, and the life in Australia is good,” he said.
On Nauru, Rashid said he suffered from similar symptoms to those he’s experiencing now and shed 15 kilograms. “Before I got to Nauru, I had three interviews already for refugee status . . . when I went to the refugee camp in Nauru, I was not let into Australia.”
“It is very bad also in Nauru.”
There, he was told he could “not go to any [other] country, only Cambodia”.
Rashid – who is one of only two refugees remaining in Cambodia under the scheme – has been in and out of hospital for the past few weeks.
At the Soviet-Khmer Friendship Hospital, where he was admitted, some patients are allocated beds, while others lie on thin mats in open corridors, with IV drips flowing into their veins or blood pooling into plastic medical bags on the floor beside them.
Rashid’s doctors said his symptoms – vomiting, headaches, pain below the chest – were consistent with gastritis, but they added that mental stress could also upset the function of intestines, causing stomach pain.
They said his condition was not serious but that he had suffered the same illness before.
Rashid said he could not understand the doctors, who spoke in Khmer.
He also feared for his future. Under the Australian and Cambodian governments’ deal, he will be supported by the IOM for one year, but he does not know how he will cope without their ongoing support.
“I have this problem, what can I do here?” he said. “Nobody [will] help me.”
Rashid wants to go to Sweden for treatment – he heard the Nordic nation had good specialists and many Rohingya people.
But Tan Sovichea, refugee director at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said Cambodian doctors “have enough competence and there are other foreign doctors” to treat Rashid locally.
Pressed on whether he considered the much-criticised scheme a success, he said: “For Cambodia, we have not failed yet. We will continue to implement [the MoU] as long as there are volunteers from Nauru.”
There have been none since Rashid in November.
Dr Mengly Quach, a US-trained doctor and educator, said Rashid’s desire to seek medical help overseas could be valid, considering many in the Kingdom sought specialists abroad if they could afford it.
“The majority go to Vietnam because it is close, but if they can afford it, they go to Thailand, and the rich, they go to Singapore,” Quach said.
While he praised the Ministry of Health’s recent move to implement checks and balances to reprimand rogue doctors, Cambodia still lacked critical specialists, he said.
The Australian Department of Immigration last week stated Rashid had been offered housing and counselling by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the group tasked with his resettlement, but said he had declined.
Rashid said he wanted to stay at the IOM office and declined their offer to help him open a Cambodian business because of his illness, adding he found it hard to communicate with the counsellor who spoke English and Malay, not Rohingya.
Australia’s Immigration Department and the IOM declined to comment further for this story.