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KUALA LUMPUR — In a dimly lit shop in Kuala Lumpur, where dried fish, herbs and pickled tea leaves imported from Burma are on display, two men sit behind a counter inspecting bank notes.
“We send money to Balukhali and Kutupalong every day,” one of the men, wearing a long white robe and an Islamic skullcap, said to a Rohingya man approaching the counter.
“Send today, money arrives on the same day,” he said.
The shop is among many in the Malaysian capital that Rohingya use to send money to the two vast refugee camps in Bangladesh since a military crackdown in August prompted over 600,000 members of the ethnic group to flee Burma.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority denied citizenship in Burma, have been escaping persecution in their mostly Buddhist homeland for decades but the latest exodus was the worst in years.
With Rohingya families still heading to the camps, refugees who left in earlier waves who have managed to establish some sort of modest livelihood are pooling together their limited resources to send money to the newly displaced.
Much is flowing from Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that is home to more than 50,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers, where many of them work as daily labourers, hawkers and construction workers.
Money transfer companies have reported a spike in remittances since the crisis erupted in August.
But the community is also tapping popular mobile money services and a centuries-old transfer system with roots in the Middle East to send financial aid to the camps for families to buy food, medicine and other necessities.
‘They have nothing now’
Rohingya refugee Kamal, who has been in Malaysia since 2012, said his parents and six siblings fled to Bangladesh’s Balukhali camp in October and are counting on him for financial support.
Among them is his 65-year-old diabetic father who needs a regular supply of medicine.
“They have nothing now, they have to buy every single thing,” Kamal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a rented low-cost flat on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur that he and his wife share with another couple.
“To boil water, they have to buy firewood and a bunch of wood is 40 taka [50 cents], which is enough to get a meal,” said the 30-year-old refugee, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity.
Kamal uses bKash, a popular Bangladeshi mobile money service, to send money to his family from wages he earns working odd jobs — sometimes 1,000 taka ($12) and sometimes up to 5,000 taka ($60) — as often as he can.
His family pick up the money in Bangladesh from certified agents using a code.
An employee at a licensed money transfer firm in Pudu, an area in central Kuala Lumpur frequented by refugees, said she had received an average of 30 money transfer requests daily to Bangladesh since the latest violence erupted.
In the past, refugees from Burma would typically send money to their homeland, rather than Bangladesh, said the staff member, who declined to give her name.
Remitting money through an official transfer store requires the Rohingya to show their UN refugee cards.
That’s not something all Rohingya in Malaysia possess — it can be a slow process for a newly arrived asylum-seeker to apply for refugee status, and applications are not always successful.
Those without official documents have turned to a network of informal transfer outlets modelled on the ancient “hawala” system, which is based on trust, and typically leaves no paper trail.
The system involves agents accepting funds in one country and promising to pay a beneficiary in another country in exchange for a fee that is smaller than at a bank.
Hawala is popular among migrants in the Middle East and has been used to remit money to remote areas, where banking is out of reach or too costly.
Trust, personal ties
Mohammed Siddiq, 34, hands over cash to one of these agents every month to send money to his family in a camp for displaced people in Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s western Rakhine State.
The agent notifies his counterparts in Sittwe, and the money is delivered to his family inside the camp.
“We trust our people, the agents have been loyal to us,” said Siddiq, who has been in Malaysia for 13 years and supports himself by delivering chickens to shops.
“I have to trust these people because my family members in the camp have no other resources. I was afraid and worried but there is no other way.”
Most of these services are run from grocery stores or restaurants popular with the Rohingya community in downtown Kuala Lumpur, often from an unmarked backroom.
Siddiq said he uses the services because sometimes, when he was short of cash to send to his family, the agents would loan him money and note down the debt, which he could repay later.
A Rohingya man, who used to be an agent, said refugees rely on the system because of trust and personal ties, and their family is able to collect the money usually within a few hours.
“Most of the time when the Myanmar people here have to send money it involves an emergency, so this is quick and efficient,” said the refugee, who declined to give his name.
But he stopped acting as a middleman after a few months, partly because too many Rohingya were turning to him to borrow money.
“It is hard to say no to friends, relatives because they are in emergency,” he said. “But later they disappeared, and I kept making losses.”