Photo story: Rohingya refugees in Malaysia

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Photo story: Rohingya refugees in Malaysia

Caitlin Wake and Tania Cheung show the fight of the Rohingya refugees to survive.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

Kamal (62) and Bibi (61) had to run away from Burma two years ago. In 2012, there was fighting between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. Rohingya people had to leave their homes and go to camps on the border with Bangladesh. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed by fire and 90,000 people had to leave.

When he was in a camp, Kamal spoke to the media about the Rohingya people in Burma. Soon after talking he had to leave the country, or the government would have arrested him.

Kamal, Bibi and their teenage son came to Malaysia. They wanted to move to another country. They have tried many times, but it has not been possible for them to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So they have no documents.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

It is very difficult for Kamal and Bibi to survive in Malaysia with no full-time work. They earn a little money cutting betel nut, and selling it to other refugees. Each day they can cut 5 kilos of betel nut, so they earn 10 Malaysian Ringgit ($2.70). It is very hard work, particularly for older people, and there is a risk of injury to their fingers.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

Kamal also earns some money by teaching English and Burmese to Rohingya children. Other Rohingyas know that he is one of the few people who speaks English, so they ask him to teach their children. Speaking English or Malay really helps people survive in Kuala Lumpur. It can help get jobs or make it easier to communicate with authorities, so they are not arrested.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

Bibi used to make clothes in Burma. But her eyes are not very good now and she can only sew a little each day, so she cannot earn much money.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

Hassan was a teenager when he left Burma. When he was going to Malaysia, he was forced to work as a slave on a Thai fishing boat for 4 years. Then they set him free.

He has now lived in Malaysia for 4 years and is registered with UNHCR. He is afraid of saying his name because the human traffickers will know who he is and demand money from his family.

Now he is in his twenties. He earns some money collecting and selling used goods he finds on the street. He now has enough money for a motorbike and he supports his wife and young son. Sometimes the police stop him in the street. Sometimes they make him give them money. But Hassan accepts this: ‘How can we dislike the police? This is not our country.’


Photo credit: The Spacemen

Noor, 26, is a widow. One day in Burma, someone told her that her husband had been killed. She waited for one year for him to return, but he never came back. After her house was burned down she ran away from 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 her youngest child is still breastfeeding. So she can’t leave her children to go to a job.

She has no regular money, so it is very difficult for Noor and her 4 children to survive.

It is very difficult for refugee single mothers in Kuala Lumpur to find work. If they pay for childcare, they spend most of the money they earn (because unregistered refugees like Noor usually work in low-paid jobs).

She is trying to earn some money at home by making sutki, a traditional Rohingya snack, that people sell in Ramadan. But she doesn’t know what she’ll do after Ramadan.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

An angry group of Rakhine people forced Abdul, 58, and his family, with a gun, to get on an old boat to leave Burma. ‘If you come back we will shoot you,’ they said.

In Burma he had 4 successful clothing shops, but it is very difficult for his family in Malaysia. They cannot save enough money to start a business. ‘It is difficult to survive in Malaysia. I am now old and I cannot work here.’

His sons work in construction and other heavy work for low wages. Abdul feels sad to see them come home from work so tired from working in such difficult and dangerous environments.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

Mohammed, 40, came to Kuala Lumpur 4 years ago. For more than 2 years he had 2 jobs. He only slept a few hours each night, to support his family in Burma. He did not want his children to suffer.

His wife and children had difficulties in Burma, and got on a boat to Malaysia without telling him. The traffickers kept them in camps and demanded 15,000 Malaysian Ringgit ($4,000) to free them. Mohammed borrowed money from other Rohingyas to pay. And now it is difficult to pay back the money because he doesn’t earn much.

His really wants his children to have better education, and a better future. But refugees cannot go to Malaysian schools. He has no money for private schools. So his children do not go to school.


Photo credit: The Spacemen

In April 2015 there were nearly 150,000 Burmese refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia registered with UNHCR. Most live in cities like Kuala Lumpur, with Malaysians and migrant workers.

Some are successful in Kuala Lumpur, but many are not. Many Rohingya refugees tell others in Burma not to come on the dangerous journey to Malaysia. ‘If you come, 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,’ says Mohammed.

Many refugees are happy that they are living in Malaysia. But some can see no future there and want to move to another country. Others dream of a day when Burma is peaceful, democratic and accepts them so they can return home.

Caitlin Wake is from the Overseas Development Institute. Tania Cheung is a Senior Communications Officer at the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG). This photo essay is part of HPG’s research about the lives of refugees, including Rohingya refugees in Kuala Lumpur.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).