In the evenings, within a cluster of homes in the Batu Caves district in the state of Selangor, Malaysia, Rohingya refugees gather in a makeshift, outdoor living room to smoke, chat and watch Bollywood films on a television hung up in a corner sundry shop. Nearby, other young Rohingya men play sepak takraw, a popular kick volleyball game in Southeast Asia.
It gets pretty lively in the evenings and on the weekends. Local Malay, migrant Indonesian, and Rohingya refugee families live here, with some offering room and board for young single men that costs about $118 per month.
This is where Mohamudul Hasson and Tobarik Huson first met and became friends. The two are both Rohingya — a stateless Muslim minority with roots in Rakhine State, Myanmar — but fled to Malaysia in search of better lives. Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya as citizens and the Rohingya community has faced protracted, state-sanctioned genocidal violence.
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In 2015, when Mohamudul was 15 years old, he left the Nayapara refugee camp in Bangladesh, where he was born, to go to Malaysia — without telling his parents.
“I knew they wouldn’t want me to go to another country and suffer again,” said Muhamudul, the oldest boy of five children.
In the early 1990s, in an exodus numbering more than 250,000 people, Muhamudul’s parents had fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine State, due to the ethnic and religious persecution they suffered as Rohingya.
At the time, Muhamudul was studying at a secondary school outside the camp and had to pass himself off as Bangladeshi to receive this education. One day, a classmate saw him coming out of the refugee camp. Muhamudul can’t say for sure what happened, but a couple of weeks later, the school told him to leave. This is not uncommon: A spate of expulsions was similarly reported in Bangladesh this year.
“My mind was kind of going crazy. ... I talked to friends who were already in Malaysia, and they told me all the bad things that happened to them on the boat over. But then, I saw their pictures on social media. It looked like they had a better life.”
“My mind was kind of going crazy. In Nayapara, you are not allowed to express your feelings. You are not allowed to do anything,” Muhamudul said. He searched for a way out. “I talked to friends who were already in Malaysia, and they told me all the bad things that happened to them on the boat over. But then, I saw their pictures on social media. It looked like they had a better life.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), after Bangladesh, Malaysia hosts the largest number of refugees from Myanmar — most of whom are Rohingya. Rohingya also make up the largest refugee group in Malaysia, with some 97,650 of a total of 178,010 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
In February 2015, with little more than his clothes, Muhamudul boarded a smuggler’s boat in Teknaf, Bangladesh, along the Naf River. The plan was to sail across the Andaman Sea, via Thailand, to reach Malaysia — a journey that can take several days.
But Thai authorities were cracking down on human trafficking networks — boats could not land. Two months after he left Nayapara, Muhamudul was able to call his mother from the boat, using a smuggler’s phone, asking her to help pay his passage of approximately $1,400 so he could be taken the rest of the way — or risk being beaten or sold into forced labor. He promised to pay the money back as soon as he found work in Malaysia.
But the journey didn’t go according to plan. After several Southeast Asian nations initially refused to let them land, a fight broke out onboard and Muhamudul’s boat capsized and sank off the coast of Aceh province, Indonesia.
For nine months, he lived at a refugee shelter that had sprung up in the city of Langsa, located in Aceh. Using his English-language skills, Mohamudul acted as an interpreter between local hospital staff and Rohingya refugees who needed treatment. But he never gave up on the idea of Malaysia, and eventually found another smuggler to take him there by boat in February 2016, which put him a further $475 in debt, with money borrowed from family friends.
His arrival in Malaysia didn’t make things any easier, however.
“It’s complicated because Malaysia has no legal framework to manage refugees. Under Malaysian law, refugees are considered illegal immigrants. ... Every aspect of their lives is insecure and unpredictable."
“It’s complicated because Malaysia has no legal framework to manage refugees. Under Malaysian law, refugees are considered illegal immigrants,” said Yante Ismail, UNHCR spokesperson in Malaysia. “This means that they are at risk of arrest and detention if they are caught by the police. It also means that they have limited access to legal work, and their children can’t access public education. Every aspect of their lives is insecure and unpredictable."
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In 2013, Tobarik Huson fled Rakhine State after his village in the town of Buthidaung, Rakhine State, Myanmar, was burned down during the spate of violent clashes that began in 2012 between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. Tobarik took his younger sister, but had to leave their parents and seven other siblings behind.
Now 19, Tobarik recalled, “The situation was chaotic. We were running here and there, and we were separated from the rest of our family. A few days later, we found our way to Maungdaw [another town in Rakhine State]. When we saw a boat, we just got on it,” he said in the local Malay he has picked up.
Eventually, they made it to Malaysia. But unlike Mohamudul, they were caught crossing the border from Thailand in a vehicle carrying 10-15 others and were sentenced to three months in prison for entering Malaysia illegally. Then, they were held in an immigration detention center for two years while waiting for UNHCR to verify their status as refugees. Held in separate quarters, they didn’t see each other again until they were released.
Once the UNHCR verifies a refugee or asylum-seeker's status, the agency issues a UNHCR identity card that offers them some legal protection.
“The card does not provide any rights under Malaysian law because there are no refugee laws in the country, but the card indicates that you are a ‘person of concern’ to UNHCR. And over the years, we have negotiated with the Malaysian government to give cardholders some privileges. For instance, they get 50% off foreigners’ rates in public hospitals. And if there’s a raid on illegal immigrants and they are detained, we can advocate for their release, and the police will often let them go,” Yante said.
Refugees in Malaysia can also access informal work and study opportunities with private employers and informal learning centers.
When Mohamudul first arrived in Malaysia, he packed and delivered fish at a market in the port town of Klang, and shared a room with three other Rohingya. Later, he moved to join the Rohingya community in Batu Caves, after a friend asked him to help him set up an informal school for Rohingya children there.
Since 2016, Mohamudul has been working with the Geutanyoe Foundation, a nongovernmental refugee advocacy organization. Mohamudul met its international director, Lilianne Fan — whom he credits as a mentor — during his time at the Langsa refugee shelter in Indonesia. Mohamudul now spearheads Geutanyoe’s homeschool literacy project, which is designed to teach refugee women basic communication skills in the safety of their homes. With this job, he managed to pay off his debts in 2017.
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But many more Rohingya are still dependent on the goodwill of strangers and are vulnerable to exploitation, Mohamudul said. “For example, many people who work are not paid their salaries at the end of the month. And they can’t do anything about it."
Secondary and tertiary education is limited to older refugee youth. According to Ismail, there are more than 120 informal learning centers in Malaysia, but only about 25 offer secondary education and only about 60 refugee youths are currently enrolled in tertiary education.
Despite the challenges, Mohamudul and Tobarik have managed to forge their own paths and rebuild their lives in Malaysia.
Not long after he was released from detention in 2015, Tobarik found a place to live in the same Batu Caves community where Mohamudul lived. He started working at a car wash nearby and still owes a friend for his passage to Malaysia, which he pays in installments with his monthly salary of $286. This income also helped him afford to locate the rest of his family, with whom he’d lost touch after they were scattered.
“When I received my first month’s salary, I went out to buy a phone. Three months later, I managed to find out my father’s whereabouts and phone number by enquiring among friends of friends. When I finally called them, my parents cried. They had not heard from us for almost three years. They thought we were dead."
“When I received my first month’s salary, I went out to buy a phone. Three months later, I managed to find out my father’s whereabouts and phone number by enquiring among friends of friends. When I finally called them, my parents cried. They had not heard from us for almost three years. They thought we were dead,” Tobarik said.
The rest of his family remains in Rakhine State, though he is now unable to speak to them as often as he used to due to recent internet blackouts. The worst thing about being in Malaysia, he said, is being without his family — his sister no longer lives with him after she married in 2017.
Mohamudul has also fallen in love — with a fellow Rohingya refugee. In the run-up to his wedding, his friends accompanied him to buy accessories for the new couple’s rented flat, decorated with pink floral curtains to welcome his bride.
Mohamudul is aware that his experience is not that of the vast majority of Rohingya in Malaysia, and that many reforms are needed to help them access basic services. “The three things we need are documentation, education and the right to work. Otherwise, how are we going to survive?” he said.
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Recently, Malaysia’s foreign minister announced discussions of a national plan for Rohingya refugees, and Fan lauds this as a step forward in the region and an opportunity to develop policies to support Rohingya youth. It’s also an important move, considering that for most refugees, the chance for resettlement to third countries — like the United States — is slim.
“They’re an extremely important group. They’re the heads of families for the next generation and the shapers of values for their communities,” Fan said. “Many of them are extremely hardworking, and they’re looking to engage positively with their own community and with Malaysian society.”
“Ultimately, we want to strengthen their self-reliance. And the best way to do that is to give them opportunities for vocational training and legal work,” Ismail said.
Mohamudul just wants to be able to do the things normal people do. “I want to drive a car. I want to have my own business. I want my future children to be able to study. Right now, I can’t do any of that. All I want is freedom. Anywhere they tell me I can have documentation, I will go,” he said.