Refugees Despair at Slow Pace of Malaysia's Reforms

By Reuters 15 August 2019

KUALA LUMPUR—Standing by his daughter’s hospital bed, Afghan Lutfullah Ahmad Hussain’s eyes welled with tears as he appealed for her life to be saved—just one of thousands of refugees in Malaysia living in increasing desperation.

The 38-year-old father is among 175,000 refugees in Malaysia, where a new government came into power a year ago promising reforms to protect refugees—who are deemed illegal migrants—and allow them to work.

But with progress slow and lacking the basic means to support their livelihood, refugees like Ahmad Hussain are losing any hope for a better life.

“I don’t have a job, I don’t have a country, nothing. My wife keeps crying,” said the father of three, who fled the violence in Kabul in 2017 with his family.

His two-year-old daughter Mahdya is battling leukemia and needs a stem cell transplant, but with no work there is little chance he can pay the 250,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$60,000) cost.

Doctors believe the toddler will have better access to medical care in Australia, but the family does not know when they may be able to be resettled there.

“I am very confused, very tired. What can I do? I don’t know,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a hospital in the suburbs of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

As he spoke, sometimes choked with emotion, Mahdya looked up from her bed, brushing her favorite doll’s hair, her fingers bruised from needle pricks.

Stories like Ahmad Hussain’s are common among Malaysia’s refugees, where years of waiting without basic rights is causing mental health issues and leaving many turning to underground work, where they risk abuse.

But pressure is increasing on the government to honor its campaign promises. While ministers have spoken out in favor of work rights, human rights groups say the lag is exposing refugees to more exploitation.


More than half of Malaysia’s refugee population are the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who face persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The rest are from countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Syria.

And while the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR has a presence and processes asylum claims in Malaysia, the country is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Because of that, refugees are viewed as illegal migrants awaiting resettlement in a third country, and cannot officially access education or employment.

Many turn to odd jobs toiling as cleaners, waiters or construction workers. Rights activists say they become easy prey for human traffickers.

Some look to the election manifesto promise from the ruling coalition, the Alliance of Hope, to ratify the UN convention, which would formally recognize refugees’ status.

“We haven’t seen any tangible changes yet,” said Evan Jones, program coordinator from the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a regional campaign group based in Bangkok.

“One of the biggest issues of not having the legal right to work is for them to be exploited by their employers, whether it is under-payment, non-payment, or it forces refugees to work in the 3D jobs—dirty, dangerous and difficult,” he added.

In recent months several ministers and employer groups have publicly stated that refugees should be allowed to work, but the country’s manpower minister said the government has yet to decide.

“I think they should be allowed to work here, at least until they are resettled in third countries,” minister M. Kulasegaran told an anti-trafficking conference earlier this month.

“I hope it will be done soon,” media quoted him as saying.

Malaysia’s National Security Council, an influential government agency, has stated that allowing refugees to work is a “complex issue,” due to security and public health concerns.

But fears that expanding refugees’ rights will attract more arrivals are misguided, said lawyer Eric Paulsen, a government-appointed human rights envoy representing Malaysia in Southeast Asia.

“Most of the refugees who flee to Malaysia is due to proximity,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Allowing them to work would not be a pull factor,” he said.

While Muslim-majority Malaysia has been Asia’s leading voice of support for the Rohingya, Paulsen said those efforts can be frustrated when the country does not protect its refugees at home.

“We have to be consistent. We can’t on the one hand advocate for their rights internationally but at the same time … mistreat them in Malaysia,” he said.

Social enterprise

A number of social enterprises, from food catering to handmade soaps, have sprung up in recent years to give refugees an income.

One such is the Lady Ayaz Sewing Center, set up in 2016 and now a thriving social business where a dozen Pakistani refugee women earn money sewing bags and pouches for brands including Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo.

Co-founder Ansa Shakil, herself a Pakistani refugee, said many women in her community struggle to put food on the table or send their children to community-run schools because they have no money.

“Many times they get cheated, beaten and not paid. They are too afraid or worried they will be arrested by the immigration, so they dare not complain,” said Shakil, who fled to Malaysia in 2014 with her husband and teenage son.

With 10 sewing machines, refugee women at the centre can take home an average 500 Malaysian ringgit each month—a seemingly small, but significant, income to keep them going.

“It’s hard, but all we can do is to try,” she said.

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