In the no-go zone, refugees in Malaysia struggle to get food and pay rent | Refugee news

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Late afternoon in Kuala Lumpur and in the harsh temperatures, Zabi* finished his third visit to the doctor in a month, still unsure of the cause of his excruciating stomach pain even though all his reports had been normal so far.

He is worried about paying the doctor’s fees because, as a refugee, he does not have much money or any medical benefits.

When Zabi came from Afghanistan to Malaysia as a teenager five years ago, he had no choice but to support himself. His family only had enough money for one of them to escape.

“I know it is illegal for a refugee to work in Malaysia. But I don’t have the option of being an orphan, as I have no trace of my family right now. I work about 18 hours a day and barely get paid four,” the 18-year-old told Al Jazeera. ringgit ($0.88) per hour.”

Zabi works as a housekeeper at a Malaysian-owned hotel in Kuala Lumpur, but because he is a refugee and not officially allowed to work, he does not have a written contract.

He has worked a series of other jobs – as a security guard, in restaurants and in customer service – and lives a precarious life, struggling to raise enough money to pay his monthly rent of 500 Malaysian ringgit ($106).

“After very long and stressful work days, I eat Maggi instant noodles most days,” he said.

Malaysia does not have a formal framework for refugees, which means they are left in a legal buffer zone where they are Vulnerable to exploitation By those who employ them. Under Malaysian law, refugees are also no different from illegal immigrants who are often targeted in official crackdowns.

The police forced the illegal immigrants away.  They walk in rows with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them.
Malaysia has cracked down on illegal immigrants in recent years (File: Hasanur Hussein/Reuters)

Responding to a question about refugees at the United Nations last month, the Malaysian representative defended the government’s approach and noted that there was no room for change.

“Who is an eligible refugee? Who is an eligible asylum seeker? Who is an economic migrant? And who will define them as such?,” said Foreign Ministry Deputy Secretary-General (Multilateral Affairs) Bala Chandran Tharman, during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, according to… Reported by Malay Mail.

Although Malaysia is a member of the United Nations, it has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no laws (PDF) in place to recognize and provide care for those fleeing persecution and conflict.

Refugees also do not have the right to work, attend school, or receive medical care.

Registration with the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)UNHCR) provides a degree of protection and support, including Limited access To health care, education and other services provided by the United Nations and its partners.

“This is merely an identity document and has no official legal value in Malaysia,” the UNHCR website notes of the card given to all those registered with it.

In 2022, the Malaysian government said that all asylum seekers and refugees will need to register under the government’s regulation. Refugee Tracking Information System (TRIS)which was launched in 2017.

The TRIS website talks about safety and the risks of social problems associated with the influx of refugees, but notes that registration may allow cardholders to work in some, mostly unskilled, areas.

“The lack of legal protection forces refugees to work illegally, and most of the jobs they find are 3D jobs, the kind of ‘difficult, dangerous and dirty’ work that Malaysians try to avoid,” said Jana Stanfield, a UNHCR associate. Founder of Together We Can Change the World and founder of the Refugee Film School in Kuala Lumpur.

Exterior appearance of Bidor Detention Centre.  There is a high fence and a gate.  A security guard stands at the gate.
More than 100 Rohingya refugees escaped from the immigration detention center in Bidore this month. The UNHCR has not been able to visit the centers since 2019 (Hasnoor Hussein/Reuters)

Without legal protection and proper contracts, many do not receive Malaysia’s national minimum wage (introduced in May 2022) of 1,500 Malaysian ringgit ($329) per month or 7.21 Malaysian ringgit ($1.64) per hour.

Zabi, who spent five months learning English after arriving in Malaysia in 2018, says the head of the security company he previously worked for agreed to pay him about 1,000 Malaysian ringgit ($219) a month but he never did.

Even now, he is forced to work overtime, which is unpaid, and work in other roles to meet his employer’s needs. He told Al Jazeera that he had to agree to these conditions and had no alternative.


More than 70 percent of the 185,000 refugees in Malaysia registered With the refugee agency they are of working age. According to information collected from refugee communities, most of them earn their living from restaurants, retail and other service jobs in addition to agriculture and construction.

“It is a win-win for Malaysia, as it will take into account the humanitarian needs of refugees, while also benefiting the Malaysian economy as it recovers from the socio-economic impact of the pandemic,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Yant Ismail. In a statement to Al Jazeera about allowing the community to work legally.

Malaysia has allowed certain groups of refugees to join the workforce in the past.

In 2015, some Syrians were allowed to work and send their children to school Under the scheme Based on an initiative launched in the early 1990s for Bosnians fleeing the Balkan wars.

“Malaysia could allow refugees to exercise their right to work under an existing legal framework… and then that could be expanded to include education and healthcare,” said Mahi Ramakrishnan, an investigative filmmaker and activist based in Malaysia. The question is whether the government has the political will to do so.”

Workers at a wholesale market in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia has millions of foreign workers who typically travel to the country under government-sponsored programs to fill low-skilled jobs (Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

In 2017, a pilot project allowed about 300 Rohingya refugees with UNHCR cards to work legally in the farm and manufacturing sector, but it was not approved.

In October, the Human Resources Ministry said refugees may be allowed to formally work in so-called “3D jobs” amid a shortage of workers usually brought in through government-backed arrangements from countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia. These schemes are currently under review as Malaysia seeks to regulate its policies towards foreign workers.

Ultimately, refugee advocacy groups say the government needs to take the lead on any policy change.

“Giving refugees the right to work means ensuring they can have a safe, decent and dignified livelihood,” Hoy Ying Tham, executive director of Asylum Access, told Al Jazeera. He stressed that implementing this “requires a multi-faceted approach with the government, in consultation with refugee communities, driving changes in laws, policies and positions to create a framework that recognizes and supports the rights and potential of refugees.”

Tham added that work must also recognize the skills and experiences of individual refugees as with any other member of the workforce.

Abu Al-Fadhli*, a teacher at an Afghan refugee school whose village was burned by the Taliban, agrees.

“We had a life before we took refuge in another land,” he said. “We are educated, we are resourceful. Host countries like Malaysia can use us – not just in agriculture but in their social and economic development,” said the 28-year-old, who is working on finishing his doctorate in law.

The Commission remains hopeful that a solution will eventually be found, although recent comments at the Universal Periodic Review suggest that may not happen soon.

For refugees like Zabi, this means the struggle continues.

“I want to go to university. I love learning new languages,” he told Al Jazeera. “At the moment, my whole life revolves around eating, sleeping and working. I don’t have any plans for the future because I know none of the plans will work out. But I’ll keep trying, like I always do.”

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of refugees

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