Out of the frying pan… Rohingya in Malaysia live in fear, uncertainty

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Sometimes 20, Sometimes 30 - It’s normal for refugees to live in small flats with up to 30 people, who may all be replaced the next week. For survival, they live wherever job opportunities take them - Photograph: UNHCR

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia find themselves trapped in a limbo where they have no rights and no protection, no real future, writes Shamsul Ebrahim.

One day I bumped into someone at the Selayang wholesale market who happened to be a Rohingya refugee. I greeted him, and we introduced ourselves.

Mohamed Hasan was tanned and he looked sad.

I asked him about his life as a refugee in Malaysia.

“I go around in the neighbourhood to collect and sell recycleable items for a living,” he replied.

I asked him if I could follow him to his house. He agreed; so I waited for him to finish his work.

There, I found his family of eight living in a rundown house with one little room and a small hall. Upon seeing the condition of his home, I asked him why he did not rent a more spacious house for the family.

He told me that he could not afford it and that they live from hand to mouth.

Mohamed Hasan has been in Malaysia since 1985, having fled from the horrors of the persecution and crackdown on the Rohingya community by the Burmese military in his homeland.

But here in Malaysia, he has experienced a lot of difficulty because he cannot get any legal documents. Refugees in Malaysia have no rights; the Malaysian government does not recognise they have any special status.

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Often he had to hide for fear of being arrested by the local authorities. He also had to endure hunger as he could not earn sufficient income, because he has few opportunities and no protection at work because he has no right to work.

It was in 2002 that he finally was able to obtain a document (a refugee card) issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But this does not give him any rights either; so he continued to face problems because the UNHCR card cannot fully protect him from being harassed by the local authorities. In addition, local thugs often robbed him of his money.

In 2005, Mohamed Hasan’s family arrived to join him. The family struggled to make ends meet. Too often he alleged precious money was extorted by those who often stopped him.

In the past two years, he has been arrested six times. Whenever he was thrown into a detention camp, the family has absolutely no income and is forced to beg for their daily needs. Most refugees suffer like this.

There are no refugee camps in Malaysia; so the refugees live in towns and cities across Malaysia in small low-cost flats orcrammed delapidated houses next to local homes. It is common for a few families or a dozen individuals to share a living space to save costs and for security reasons.

In the eyes of Malaysian law, the refugees are not different from undocumented (‘illegal’) migrants. The refugees are often at risk of arrest and detention if they are stopped by the authorities. The absence of legal and administrative frameworks to safeguard refugees leaves them exposed to the abuse of their basic rights such as local employers taking advantage of refugees’ vulnerabilites.

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The refugees try and survive by finding whatever work they can get: working in informal sectors with extremely low pay or no wages at all. Where they are cheated by employers, as they often are, the refugees are unable to report to the authorities due to their lack of legal status.

For health, the refugees do in theory have access to healthcare facilities in Malaysia. But they are charged expensive ‘foreigners’ fees’, which many cannot afford. This means that in some cases, refugees have died from preventable and curable diseases because they could not pay for the treatment. Horrible stories result: for example, in reported cases, refugee women say they have seen their newborn babies being held until the bill is settled.

Malaysian law does not allow refugee children to go to public schools. Some refugees and some NGOs have set up some provision for children, but this only reaches a minority of the children and is patchy in its quality and impact. Most refugee children have little prospect of a positive future here.

In a nutshell, refugees like Mohamad Hasan and his family in Malaysia find themselves trapped in a limbo where they have no rights and no protection, no real future. They have to continually eke out a living as best they can, always in fear of being harassed or detained by the authorities.

The UNHCR declare that there are three options: repatriation, local integration and resettlement.

But for the majority of refugees, including groups like the Rohingya, repatriation is not an option. There are very few now who are being resettled to a third country, so the reality for the 200,000 or so refugees in Malaysia is to be given rights and responsibilities so that there is an avenue for local integration.

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It is a fact that refugees have made huge contributions to the development and growth of those countries which have accepted them. They work hard and are committed to making a good life for themselves and their families, safe from the brutality and persecution of their homeland.

Is it too much to hope that one day soon Malaysia will recognise this and welcome refugees and provide support and legal status that will allow them to live a life of dignity (something all of us take for granted)?

Shamsul Ebrahim is the pseudonym of a Rohingya refugee who took part in a recent Aliran Young Writers’ Workshop.

This is part of a series of articles that Aliran is publishing in partnership with the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.

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