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Rohingya refugees in Malaysia find themselves trapped in a limbo where they have no rights and no protection, no real future, writes Shamsul Ebrahim.

One day I bumped into someone at the Selayang wholesale market who happened to be a Rohingya refugee. I greeted him, and we introduced ourselves.

Mohamed Hasan was tanned and he looked sad.

I asked him about his life as a refugee in Malaysia.

“I go around in the neighborhood to collect and sell recyclable items for a living,” he replied.

I asked him if I could follow him to his house. He agreed; so I waited for him to finish his work.

There, I found his family of eight living in a rundown house with one little room and a small hall. Upon seeing the condition of his home, I asked him why he did not rent a more spacious house for the family.

He told me that he could not afford it and that they live from hand to mouth.

Mohamed Hasan has been in Malaysia since 1985, having fled from the horrors of the persecution and crackdown on the Rohingya community by the Burmese military in his homeland.

But here in Malaysia, he has experienced a lot of difficulty because he cannot get any legal documents. Refugees in Malaysia have no rights; the Malaysian government does not recognise they have any special status.

Often he had to hide for fear of being arrested by the local authorities. He also had to endure hunger as he could not earn sufficient income, because he has few opportunities and no protection at work because he has no right to work.

It was in 2002 that he finally was able to obtain a document (a refugee card) issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But this does not give him any rights either; so he continued to face problems because the UNHCR card cannot fully protect him from being harassed by the local authorities. In addition, local thugs often robbed him of his money.

In 2005, Mohamed Hasan’s family arrived to join him. The family struggled to make ends meet. Too often he alleged precious money was extorted by those who often stopped him.

In the past two years, he has been arrested six times. Whenever he was thrown into a detention camp, the family has absolutely no income and is forced to beg for their daily needs. Most refugees suffer like this.

There are no refugee camps in Malaysia; so the refugees live in towns and cities across Malaysia in small low-cost flats or-crammed dilapidated houses next to local homes. It is common for a few families or a dozen individuals to share a living space to save costs and for security reasons.

In the eyes of Malaysian law, the refugees are not different from undocumented (‘illegal’) migrants. The refugees are often at risk of arrest and detention if they are stopped by the authorities. The absence of legal and administrative frameworks to safeguard refugees leaves them exposed to the abuse of their basic rights such as local employers taking advantage of refugees’ vulnerabilities.

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