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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia has been a sort of promised land for Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The tens of thousands who endured perilous journeys to get here find more work opportunities than in Indonesia and a more Muslim-friendly environment than in Thailand.
But in the 25 years since Hamid Hussein Abul Khair arrived, that promise has been worn away by the statelessness and poverty that have never left him.
Rohingya face a tenuous existence here, unable to legally work because Malaysia, like Thailand and Indonesia, doesn't recognize asylum seekers and refugees and hasn't signed the U.N. Refugee Convention. They mostly scrape by on dirty or dangerous jobs shunned by Malaysians, live in squalid conditions and have no access to free health care and state-run schools.
For many Rohingya, even living on the margins of Malaysian society is a step forward. But those who have been here for years yearn for something better — at least for their children.
"God willing, we can make a living here. We are thankful to Malaysia but what future do we have? My children can't get citizenship, they have no formal education and they can't get proper jobs," Hamid, 54, said in his austere apartment on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Denied citizenship by Myanmar and chased off their land in repeated outbreaks of communal violence, the 1.3 million Rohingya there have been identified by the U.N. as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. Some 140,000 have been displaced from their homes, and many live in camps. Myanmar regards them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
The desperation of the Rohingya has been highlighted in recent weeks by boatloads of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh stranded in Malacca Strait waters after their traffickers abandoned them near the end of risky 1,700-kilometer (1,000-mile) voyages amid a clampdown by local authorities. Some 3,500 came ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, but many of those now at shelters say their goal was to get to Malaysia.
Nearly 46,000 Rohingya in Malaysia have been registered as refugees by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, and there are an estimated 40,000 more whose status has yet to be assessed. Obtaining a U.N. refugee card generally protects people from arrest.
The economic prosperity, Islamic culture and the large population of Rohingya in Malaysia are all pull factors.
"Malaysia is a modern Muslim urban society, with a booming construction business and economy. As a place of income, it's many times better than where they come from. In terms of security, although it's not easy with risks of arrests and exploitation, it's still significantly better than what they have left behind," said Richard Towle, the UNHCR representative in Malaysia.
Refugees from Myanmar make up the biggest chunk of the more than 150,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia, one of the highest numbers in Asia, according to the UNHCR. The country has no refugee camps, so they live as "urban refugees" in shantytown settlements, cramped low-cost flats or isolated houses where they work on construction sites, restaurants, factories and plantations.
Nurjan Nur Mohamad, an 18-year-old Rohingya woman who arrived in Malaysia two months ago after a dangerous boat journey, said that while she is afraid of getting arrested, she is also extremely relieved to have left behind the threats and violence of Myanmar.
"I live in fear of the police here, but there is peace and I get enough food. It's so much better than in the village," she said. She hopes she and her new husband can win refugee status from the UNHCR to get some protection.
When he first arrived in Malaysia at age 29, Hamid also was constantly afraid of getting caught by police. He took up various odd jobs and then set up a small food stall selling roti canai, a popular Indian flatbread, and potato samosa. Later, his wife joined him in Malaysia and they had four children. Life became more tolerable when they were recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, but the future was — and is — still murky.
He worries most about his children. The younger two attend a community school for Rohingya refugees funded by a local Muslim group. They learn to speak the Malay language, Islamic studies and other subjects. His 11-year-old son wants to be a doctor and youngest daughter a professor, he said.
Hamid and his family have put in for resettlement in the U.S. or a third country through the UNHCR, but haven't heard anything back. He holds out hope that his children might be granted citizenship in Malaysia.
"I have spent half of my life here. I love Malaysia but after 25 years, what do I get? It's OK for me, I am growing old but what about my children? I don't want them to suffer like me," he said. "Our hope now is to go to America where they can be citizens and get higher education."
Hamid's views are echoed by many Rohingya families in Malaysia, who initially didn't view resettlement as an option but now see it as the only way for their children to escape an impoverished future.
Globally, only 80,000 refugees are resettled each year, with the U.S. taking about 70 percent of them. Refugees from Myanmar make up the largest group, followed by Iraq, Congo and Somalia. But many of those from Myanmar are ethnic Chins who are Christians and English-speaking.
Apart from the U.S., most other countries are not eager to take in Rohingya Muslims amid concerns that they could not integrate successfully because of religious values, community structures and language issues, said Towle of the UNHCR.
"Rohingya have not featured very significantly in numbers in resettlement programs apart from the last few years but the numbers are increasing," he said.
Towle urged Malaysia to consider giving Rohingya protected status and work permits, which could help plug gaps in the workforce.
"If you allow people who are going to be here anyway the right to work, you will flush them out of the gray economy and they will be more dignified contributors to Malaysia," he said.
But Malaysia fears that allowing refugees to stay permanently will just encourage more to come.
Hamid said his family cried when they watched scenes of the scrawny Rohingya boat people on television. He said he has told his relatives in Myanmar not to come to Malaysia, mainly because of the risks of the sea journey and mistreatment by traffickers.
"Many people have died at sea due to being beaten, starvation or illness. It's suicidal to come here," he said. "It's better to die in your homeland than at sea."