Kamal (62) and Bibi (61) were forced to flee for their lives from Burma two years ago. In 2012, conflict broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. Riots erupted and Rohingya people were driven from their homes into camps on the border with Bangladesh. Over 2,000 homes were burnt down and 90,000 people were displaced.
While in the camp, Kamal spoke to the media about the treatment of Rohingya people in Burma. He explained that soon after talking he was told he would be arrested by the government if he did not flee the country.
Kamal, Bibi and their teenage son came to Malaysia hoping to be resettled to another country. But they have been unable to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – despite many attempts – and to date they remain undocumented.
Kamal and Bibi are struggling to survive in Malaysia without full-time work. They earn a little money cutting betel nut, which they sell to fellow refugees. Each day they can cut 5 kilos of betel nut, earning a paltry 10 Malaysian Ringgit ($2.70). It is physically demanding work, particularly for elderly people, requiring them to be hunched over for hours, with the constant risk of injuring their fingers.
Kamal also earns some money by teaching English and Burmese to Rohingya children. Fellow Rohingyas in the area know him to be one of the few people with English skills, so they hired him to teach their children. Speaking English or Malay can dramatically help people survive in Kuala Lumpur. It can open up job opportunities or make it easier to communicate with authorities and avoid arrest.
Bibi used to earn some income through tailoring clothes in Burma. A friend there gave them a used sewing machine when they came to Kuala Lumpur, allowing her to earn a little money. But her eyes are slowly deteriorating and she is only able to sew a little each day, limiting how much she can earn through sewing.
Hassan was just a teenager when he left Burma. During the journey to Malaysia, he was detained, held for ransom and made to work as a slave on a Thai fishing boat for 4 years before being released.
He has now lived in Malaysia for 4 years and is registered with UNHCR. He is afraid of revealing his identity for fear of human traffickers identifying him and extorting money from his family.
Now in his twenties, he has managed to make a living collecting and selling used goods he finds on the street. He has earned enough money to save up for a motorbike and is able to support his wife and young son. He is occasionally stopped by police in the street. Some are sympathetic to his situation while others demand bribes. Still, Hassan is not resentful: ‘How can we dislike the police? This is not our country.’
Noor, 26, is a widow. One day while living in Burma, she heard that her husband had been killed. She waited for one year for him to return, but he never did. After her house was burned down she fled Burma with her four children on a boat with other people from her village.
She has lived in Kuala Lumpur with her children for a few months now. ‘People say that I have to work, no-one can help me,’ but with her youngest still breastfeeding she is unable to leave her children to go to a job.
Without a steady income, Noor and her 4 children are struggling to survive.
Working outside the home can be very difficult for refugee single mothers in Kuala Lumpur. The cost of paying for childcare can take up the majority of earnings, especially for unregistered refugees like Noor who would typically work in underpaid and precarious jobs.
She is trying to earn some money at home by preparing sutki, a traditional Rohingya snack, to be sold during Ramadan. But she doesn’t know what she’ll do to make ends meet when Ramadan is over.
Abdul, 58, tells the story of how his family were forced at gunpoint by an angry mob of Rakhine people to get on a rickety boat to leave Burma. ‘If you come back we will shoot you,’ he remembers them saying.
In Burma he owned 4 successful clothing shops, but his family have struggled to keep afloat in Malaysia, unable to save enough money to start a businesses. No longer a young man, he says it is not easy to support his family: ‘It is difficult to survive in Malaysia. I am now old and I cannot work here.’
His sons work in construction and other hard labour jobs for low wages. Abdul describes how upsetting it is to see them return home from work, worn and weary from working in such difficult and dangerous environments.
Mohammed, 40, came to Kuala Lumpur 4 years ago. For over 2 years he worked 2 jobs, sleeping only a few hours each night, in order to support his family back in Burma. He was willing to push himself hard as he did not want to see his children suffer.
His wife and children faced difficulties in Burma, and got on a boat to Malaysia without telling him. They were held in camps run by human traffickers, who demanded 15,000 Malaysian Ringgit ($4,000) to release them. He borrowed money from others in the Rohingya community to pay for their release, a debt he still struggles to repay on his low earnings.
His greatest hope is to provide his children with a better education, and a better future. But as refugees his children cannot attend Malaysian schools, and without money for private schools his children have yet to gain an education.
As of April 2015 there were nearly 150,000 Burmese refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia registered with UNHCR. Most live in urban cities like Kuala Lumpur, amongst Malaysians and migrant workers.
Despite varying degrees of success in rebuilding their lives in Kuala Lumpur, many Rohingya refugees warn others in Burma against attempting the perilous journey to Malaysia. ‘If you are still stubborn and insist on coming you will die in the sea. If you don’t die in the sea you will die here. You cannot live and work well here,’ cautions Mohammed.
Though many refugees are grateful to be living in Malaysia, some can see no future there and hope for resettlement in another country, while others dream of a day when Burma is peaceful, democratic and accepting of them so they can return home.
Caitlin Wake is a Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute. Tania Cheung is a Senior Communications Officer at HPG. This photo essay is part of a film project to accompany HPG’s research on refugee livelihoods, including Rohingya refugees in Kuala Lumpur, with a report to come out later this year.
This article first appeared in New Internationalist. Click here to go to the original.