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The first time he tried to escape a tough existence in his village in western Burma in 2004, Junaid Zafar was thrown in jail for five years.
Like many other Rohingya Muslims, Zafar was seeking to flee poverty and persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and he did not wait long after being released from jail to try again.
This time, his parents sold off possessions to raise about US$1,000 to pay people smugglers to take him to Malaysia. Zafar, the eldest of three siblings, finally made it in 2011.
But like thousands of other Rohingya in Malaysia, he now finds himself living in a precarious limbo, having to work illegally due to official restrictions, and with resettlement to another country where he could lead a more stable life a distant dream.
“I have been here for five years, some other refugees have been here for 10 years. I feel like I am wasting my life,” the tall, slender man, now 31, said.
Zafar – like some 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, mainly from Burma – does not have formal status in the country as Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. The government considers them to be illegal migrants.
Now there is a glimmer of hope for the many Rohingya and other refugees living in Malaysia, as authorities make a renewed effort to try to improve their access to work.
“Dirty, difficult and dangerous”
The Malaysian government has in the past said it would consider allowing refugees to work but details and implementation had been sketchy. Some officials feared a relaxation of the policy would lead to an influx of migrant workers.
But this month the creation of a government-led task force was announced to handle refugee registration issues.
Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the task force would also look into the possibility of opening up the job market for refugees and allowing refugee children formal education.
“[The task force] will look into issues of refugees in Malaysia, which include the Rohingya, in a more comprehensive manner,” he said in a telephone interview.
“It will decide on the recognition of these people first and then decide on the short-, medium- and long-term solutions for them, including job and education opportunities,” he said.
While the refugees are recognised by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, Malaysia does not extend protection, job opportunities or education to them, as it is not party to the refugee convention.
Barred from working officially, many refugees end up finding odd jobs as cleaners, or working in restaurants or on construction sites.
The country relies heavily on foreign labourers for jobs shunned by Malaysians in what is known as the “3D” – dirty, difficult and dangerous – industries.
But the lack of a formal status often leaves refugees vulnerable to exploitation, said lawyer Andrew Khoo, a co-chairperson of the human rights committee at the Malaysian Bar, the country’s main legal professional body.
“As long as the government doesn’t recognise their status, let alone the ability to access work legally, they are susceptible to abuse, exploitation and mistreatment,” Khoo said.
A conference in Bangkok this week as part of the so-called Bali Process on people smuggling and trafficking, will gather experts and officials to discuss ways to absorb refugees in Southeast Asia into the legal workforce.
“It’s not easy”
For Zafar, he said even when he managed to find a job, usually as a waiter in restaurants, his wage is only half of what other migrant workers get, and that he can be dismissed at any time.
“Sometimes I have a job, sometimes I don’t. You never know, it’s not easy,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a Rohingya community centre in Ampang, a neighbourhood that is home to many refugees and a short drive from downtown Kuala Lumpur.
At the restaurant, he is paid about 30 Malaysian ringgit ($7.50) for a 12 hour-shift. On a few occasions, the restaurant owners refused to pay him, but he had no legal recourse and had to look for new jobs, he said.
Without a formal status, other refugees Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to also described harassment from law enforcement officials, who demand bribes or threaten arrests.
Other challenges they face include paying for medical treatment or even just finding a place to rent.
In an open-air market in Ampang, where refugees gather in the evening, another Rohingya, Muhammad Ayub, has been working as a tailor since arriving in Malaysia four years ago.
He worked from home in the beginning but was later given a job at a shop by a sympathetic employer.
“I am grateful I can find work and send money home. Although when the local authorities come for their routine check, we have to pull down the shutter straight away and run,” Ayub said.
Zafar said he could not face going home, but looked forward to the day he could resettle in another country, and bring his parents and siblings there.
“I want to go back to my village but our situation hasn’t improved,” he said of the new Burmese government led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
For the time being, Zafar said he was hoping to get a stable job in Malaysia, and perhaps one day, he said with a shy grin, he would be able to bring his childhood sweetheart from his village to a better country and marry her.