Mohd Rafik still recalls the day when Buddhist militants pursued him with a machete in his hometown in Buthidaung township in Rakhine State in Myanmar. His abdomen and shoulder still bear indelible scars from that traumatic experience. It led him to flee Myanmar for Malaysia in 2012. Two years later, his wife and two children eventually reunited with him—taking the same route by boat to Thailand, then overland into Malaysia, with the help of human traffickers.
Rafik and his family are just one example of thousands who have been pushed out of their homes. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 723,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh since 2017.
Malaysia has long been a temporary shelter for refugees and asylum seekers. In the late 1970s, the country opened its doors to Filipino refugees from the Mindanao region and to the Vietnamese boat people. Between 1975 and 2005, Malaysia provided safe haven for over 250,000 Vietnamese boat people. As of the end of December 2018, there are around 163,000 UNHCR-registered cardholders from countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. Around 86% of the recognised refugees come from Myanmar, comprising some 88,000 Rohingyas. Rohingyas came to Malaysia in waves, with the highest numbers notably during 1990 to 1994, 2000 to 2004 and 2012 to 2015.
But despite the relative safety, making it to Malaysia is hardly the end of a refugee’s problems. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and there is no legal framework for refugees; while refugees are allowed in on a humanitarian basis, they’re regarded as undocumented migrants and denied access to healthcare, employment and education. Officially registering as a refugee with the UNHCR is no easy feat—one has to approach the agency in their Kuala Lumpur office, and the process can take years—but even those with UNHCR refugee cards aren’t given any special protection or legal status in Malaysia, and are at risk of arrest and detention for immigration offences. There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 refugees who don’t even have UNHCR refugee cards.
Healthcare and employment
On an October afternoon, Ziaur Rahman, a 26-year-old prominent Rohingya activist, accompanies his ill uncle to the local government health clinic. After contracting pneumonia, Mohammed Ayub had to quit his job—obtained, as many Rohingya refugees do, via under-the-table arrangements—as a construction worker in Penang. He’s been unemployed for a year now; his financial situation led him to leave Penang to seek out his nephew in Kuala Lumpur for financial support.
“As we are refugees, we are not locals. We need to pay for everything. At the same time, we are also trying to contribute to the locals and government,” Rahman says. UNHCR-registered refugees are given a 50% medical subsidy at government health clinics, but medical costs can still be a strain when one only earns an average monthly salary of MYR1,000. Non-registered refugees are expected to pay full foreigner fees.
In order to make ends meet, Rohingya men resort to working illegally to support their families. Most of them work as construction workers, grass-cutters or factory workers—lowly paid, menial jobs generally shunned by Malaysians. They are often vulnerable and subjected to labour exploitation, with bosses delaying or refusing payment, though some Rohingyas mentioned being well treated by altruistic Malaysian employers. Given their legal status in the country, there are few avenues open to them to seek redress, allowing employers to misbehave with impunity.
Malaysia has long been a temporary shelter for refugees and asylum seekers. But despite the relative safety, making it to Malaysia is hardly the end of a refugee’s problems
Arriving in Perlis in the north of Peninsular Malaysia in 2012, 30-year-old Hamid Hussein was arrested for working illegally at a construction site. He ended up spending a difficult year in jail and in an immigration detention centre. Eager to restart life after his release, Hussein found work as a machine operator at an electronics company in Kuala Lumpur. He has worked there for the past four years and is now living alone in a rented basement room.
With a basic monthly salary of only MYR900, money is the source of most of Hussein’s anxiety. After paying his rent, food and utilities, he’s not left with much. He, like many other Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, worries about not having enough income to remit to relatives living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“My family has been living in [Balukhali] refugee camp in Bangladesh for more than two years already. I cannot send any money because my salary is not enough. Sometimes it’s enough, but living here is expensive,” Hussein recounts in anguish.
“Companies tell me that my UNHCR card is technically illegal so we cannot apply to work as a technician or engineer,” he adds. “And when I call my family, they are always crying because their condition is very serious. Because I cannot support my parents, I’m also [worried] for my future.” He dreams of one day completing a PhD in international law, which can be put to use helping his people.
In March 2017, the Malaysian government tried to introduce a pilot project that would allow Rohingya refugees to work legally in government-linked plantations and manufacturing industries. But the pilot was deemed a flop when only 120 Rohingya refugees indicated interest in participating.
Former Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told Channel NewsAsia that the Rohingya weren’t keen on leaving their communities to go to plantations in rural Malaysia: “They prefer to be entrepreneurs and do small business within their community. They don’t want to be tied down in plantations.”
Yet some legislators aren’t ready to give up on the idea. “Just because it was a failure the first time round, doesn’t mean it will be a continual failure,” says Charles Santiago, the Member of Parliament for Klang in the state of Selangor. “My view is that there are enough refugees who can be trained to replace migrant workers. Refugees can value-add to Malaysia’s labour force.”
Rohingya women, on the other hand, face a different set of challenges. In a patriarchal society where traditional gender roles prevail, Rohingya women are expected to be homemakers and remain entirely dependent on their husbands, even if the men struggle to bring home meagre incomes. Some social enterprises, like the Reyna Movement, have tried to alleviate this situation by producing a Rohingya cookbook interwoven with personal stories, paying families for their contributions.
Access to education
While adult refugees struggle with the question of employment, their children are faced with another obstacle: access to public schools. According to UNHCR, there are more than 42,000 refugee and asylum-seeker children below the age of 18.
“One of the challenges of being a refugee in Malaysia is that you cannot get access to public education,” Kamarulzaman Askandar, Research and Education for Peace professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, tells New Naratif. He founded the Penang Peace Learning Centre in 2013 in response to the huge influx of Rohingya coming into Malaysia, with the aim of providing basic education to the children.
“There used to be some kids from refugee communities that were going around begging on the streets. We want to prevent all these things,” Kamarulzaman recalls.
“Education is a basic human right,” he insists. “You’ve got to know the basic things like reading and writing and a bit of mathematics to, well, survive as a human being. Otherwise, how are you going to survive?”
With access to public education cut off, private-run efforts have popped up to fill the gap. There are about 120 such private schools run by NGOs across Malaysia, including some faith-based schools. At Kamarulzaman’s Penang Peace Learning Centre, classes are conducted in basic Malay; the children learn mathematics, science and English, and are also exposed to theatre and computing classes.
Despite their best efforts, Kamarulzaman says such schools are still limited in what they can do: there are, for instance, the lack of resources to provide secondary school education for the older children. Some young refugees also feel the pressure to drop out of school so they can work to provide for their families, and child marriages are still common in the community. But despite such challenges, Kamarulzaman and his small team of volunteer teachers remain undeterred in their mission to educate Rohingya children.
The school believes that role modelling by educated Rohingyas is key. Their list of invited speakers include Sharifah Shakirah, the 26-year-old founder of the Rohingya Women’s Development Network (RWDN)—Malaysia’s only Rohingya women’s rights group—who encouraged the students to continue studying, as higher education solves many social problems.
In addition, the school sees itself as a conduit for raising awareness of the plight of refugees among the Malaysian public. Malaysians’ misconceptions of the refugee community, Kamarulzaman says, can often be a hurdle towards acceptance and understanding.
Santiago echoes this perspective: “[Many Malaysians] see migrant workers and refugees as people who are taking away our jobs, who are creating social problems in our country. This is not true. [The] numbers are not showing it at all.”
“These refugees are not here because they want to, but to escape from persecution and security in their country. If given the choice, they do not want to be here,” Kamarulzaman says.
Resettlement, a far-fetched reality
In an interview, Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative of Malaysia pointed to three broad options available to refugees who seek asylum in a foreign country—[voluntary] repatriation, integration or resettlement.
Unlike refugees in countries like Australia, the United States or Canada, who have a path towards becoming naturalised citizens, there are no legislative provisions in place for naturalisation in Malaysia.
While those who were born in Malaysia hope to stay in the country, many older Rohingya refugees desire to be resettled in the United States or Canada. It is, after all, their best chance of getting legal citizenship in a country. Yet the reality is that only less than 1% of the world’s refugee population are chosen for resettlement in countries that are part of UNHCR’s resettlement programme. For many, resettlement is a sort of lottery—a game in which one might wait for decades to be called upon by the UNHCR. Until then, Rohingyas are stuck in a cycle of uncertainty and instability, unable to plan for their future.
Abdul Hussin was only 14 years old when he first arrived in Malaysia in 2000. He lived in limbo for decades in Malaysia. But things took a turn for the better one day: the UNHCR resettlement programme officer called him to say that his application for resettlement was successful. In August 2018, his family of five finished all the required health screenings and are ready to be resettled in Canada.
Resettlement isn’t exactly a “happily ever after”, as refugees deal with culture shock and the many adjustments required for life in a new country, but Hussin’s well aware of how lucky he is. “My family finally has a future in Canada. There will be jobs for me there,” he says.
The result of the May 2018 general election, bringing in a new government, has given Rohingya refugees hope for change. On 8 September 2018, Ziaur Rahman took the opportunity to write a letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad petitioning for the ratification of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The letter was subsequently published on Free Malaysia Today. In it, he urged Pakatan Harapan to honour its manifesto promise to “legitimise [refugees’] status by providing them with UNHCR cards and ensuring their legal right to work.”
But advocating for the rights of refugees is still as sensitive today as it was under the previous government. After his letter was published—with Free Malaysia Today inaccurately describing him as being a representative of the Rohingya community—Rahman was swiftly criticised by some Malaysians and Rohingya community leaders for being too quick to press the new government for the rights of Rohingya refugees. A month later, Rahman apologised in a Facebook post saying “I do not like challenging anyone”, and asking people to “not misunderstand because I am trying to raise my voice for me and my fellow refugees.”
“I am a human being like you all,” he wrote.
The episode highlighted how much of an uphill battle it can be to push for refugees’ rights. The Pakatan Harapan government is implementing a slew of reforms, but there’s still scepticism about their political will to push through ratification of the UN Refugee Convention.
The Pakatan Harapan government is implementing a slew of reforms, but there’s still scepticism about their political will to push through ratification of the UN Refugee Convention
Santiago, now a part of the ruling coalition, says the ratification process will take time and isn’t a priority of the government just yet. For that to happen, he says, a fundamental shift in thinking will be needed from the government. It would require a new paradigm, looking at refugees from the perspective of development, rather than law and order. He suggests that the government can also have domestic regulations to make access to healthcare, jobs and education available for refugees even before ratification.
Kamarulzaman points to Malaysia’s willingness to comment on the situation in Rakhine State, even as other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as Santiago observes, prefer to keep mum. ASEAN’s non-interference principle is commonly used by countries to justify their lack of response towards the genocide. “You know, Malaysia has always been very vocal about the situation in Myanmar,” Kamarulzaman says. “[But] sometimes we forget that in this country there are thousands and thousands of Myanmar refugees.”
Eileen Chew is an independent documentary photographer and video producer based in Singapore. Her personal work is currently focused on stories relating to displacement, memory and socio-political developments in Southeast Asia.