Rohingya in Malaysia open doors to newcomers

News Stories, 28 April 2014

© UNHCR/B.Baloch
Abdul Alam (left) has taken 15 people from his family and village in Myanmar to stay in his rented home in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 28 (UNHCR) Fourteen years ago, Hazzurahman fled Myanmar's Rakhine state on a boat and ended up in Malaysia. With time, he found work, a place to live, and started a family in exile.

Fourteen years later, his nephew Hassan* has followed in his footsteps with one exception the 16-year-old couldn't walk and had to be carried to safety in Kuala Lumpur.

Far from being a rite of passage, the arduous journeys they undertook were prompted by a cycle of violence that has driven tens of thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine state to seek refuge in the region.

In Malaysia, the UN refugee agency has registered more than 35,000 Rohingya over the years, and believes there are more out there. While UNHCR provides documentation, and support for the most vulnerable among them, a lot of support comes from the community itself. Those who came earlier are now hosting relatives and fellow villagers who have arrived more recently.

"He was very young when I left home. We didn't really recognize each other after all these years," said Hazurrahman, 37, about his nephew. "I asked why he came, with so much suffering. He said young people were getting arrested, going missing. He was afraid he would be next."

When he first arrived, Hassan couldn't feel his legs after months of confinement and malnutrition in a smuggler's camp in Thailand. His uncle has had to help him with everything, including taking him to the bathroom several times a day. In addition, Hazurrahman has to provide physical care for his wife and their baby born over a month ago. These added responsibilities have affected his presence at work and cost him his job installing marble tiles.

He's not alone in this predicament. Fellow Rohingya construction worker Abdul Alam, 33, recently lost his job due to a back injury. In addition to his wife and three children, he now hosts 15 other people in three rented rooms in Kuala Lumpur.

Abdul himself arrived in 1995 after fleeing forced porterage and charges of unauthorized movement back home. His parents, siblings and in-laws joined him after the 2012 inter-communal violence in Sittwe. Recently he took in two newcomers a mother and son from his village in Rakhine state.

"Even though some of them are not related to us, we know each other and are all connected somehow. I had to help them," said Abdul. "I have some savings and the community lends me money for food. In this household, two other men are working. And we have a resourceful lady who picks and cooks wild vegetables."

Having a support network away from home helps the new arrivals to find their feet after the often-traumatic experiences they have been through. But the Rohingya host community is struggling to cope with limited resources.

Like other urban refugees in Malaysia, the Rohingya have no access to legal work but are allowed to work in the informal sector. They tend to perform menial tasks that the local population shuns such as in construction, on plantations and recycling scrap metal and are vulnerable to exploitation because of their dire situation and uncertain legal status.

Hazurrahman does not know how he can continue to care for three dependents with no income of his own. He tells relatives in Myanmar not to come but concedes that he cannot turn them away if they do. "Don't think it's easy here," he said. "I didn't want to come but was forced to flee. Even though I've stayed here a long time, I still have no achievements, I'm still not settled."

Abdul is more hopeful as he believes he has a chance of being resettled to a third country. "I can't help everyone, I have my own family to take care of," he said. "I hope my kids will have a better future if we are resettled. Maybe then we can help the others from there."

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Vivian Tan, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia