How Do Refugees Make A Living In Malaysia?

Imagine this. 

You were born in a particular country, of a particular ethnic group, belief system and ideology – all within a specific period of time not of your choosing and not within your control. As you grow older you find yourself in the victim seat of riots, looting, arson, rape or violence and your living environment is life-threatening, dangerous and full of conflict. You don’t know any better but you know that the chaos happening around you isn’t right and the place of your origin is no longer safe to stay. 

You try to escape. Your journey to a country where it is safe and whose people share similar beliefs in hopes of a better life. The trip to this ‘promised land’ would involve working hard to afford a spot in a boat to take you there. These boats are often overcrowded and you will have to be mentally prepared to brace the discomforts of sharing a boat with others in unsanitary conditions and endure hunger and thirst for weeks on end. There is also a possibility that you will be physically and verbally abused and you’re praying your hardest that you will not be a victim of rape or violence at sea. At this point, leaving your country is the only way out and you’re willing to take this crazy risk to get to the ‘promised land’ – Malaysia. 

Upon arrival, you realise your safe haven wasn’t as dreamy as you thought it would be. You see boats being pushed back to sea, by the government that doesn’t want you in their care. You are told you have one year to resettle somewhere else, but you have nowhere else to go. You cannot go back to your country and you have no one to turn to. You are a refugee in a new land. 

Source: East Asia Forum

A refugee is a person who fears persecution due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country[1].

At the end of the day, refugees are victims. Although they are often classified as migrants looking for economic gain, unlike migrants, they have lost the protection of their governments. And unlike migrants, they are unable to return home[2]

Malaysia does not accommodate refugees. There are no camps or shelters, no official aid or assistance offered to refugees, yet they live among us. In 2019, there were a total of 178, 710 refugees and asylum seekers were registered in Malaysia. There were at least another 80, 000 more that were undocumented[3].

The majority of refugees in Malaysia are originally from Myanmar with the Rohingya (102,350 registered refugees); Chin (22,430) and other ethnic groups fleeing conflict and persecution[3]. There are also refugees from Pakistan (6,610), Yemen (3,650), Syria (3,250), Somalia (3,230), Afghanistan (2,660), Sri Lanka (1,730), Iraq (1,210), Palestine (750), among others[3].

Source: The Star

Whilst refugees in Malaysia are not at risk of deportation, they are still at risk of arrest, detention, extortion, and corporal punishment[4]. They are restricted from accessing healthcare, education, and even finding work because they are refugees[4].  

The Malaysian government has considered issuing temporary work permits to allow them to work legally, however many of these schemes have yet to be successfully adopted and implemented. This is surprising seeing as Malaysia depends a lot on its foreign workforce.  According to the Temporary Work Visit Pass data from the Ministry of Home Affair, there were a total of two million foreign workers in the country as of 30 June 2020[5]. This is a substantial increase from only 1.4 million refugees in 2011[5].  

If it is illegal for refugees to work in Malaysia, how do most of them make a living? 

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that 92% of refugees said they, nor their family members, had ever received aid or services during the previous year[4]. NGOs that usually assist the vulnerable community are often conflicted in working with refugees as they are technically an ‘illegal population’[4]. In most cases, refugees are left to survive on their own. 

One study, highlighting the livelihoods of the Rohingya communities described them receiving help from other Rohingyas. Their own social network of family members, friends, neighbours and kind strangers, provide social capital, protection, livelihood support and shelter. The refugee community is so closely intertwined with one another that they are willing to share accommodation, lend or give money, and help one another find work. As a matter of fact, the majority of refugees rely on their social networks to find employment[4]

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

I went to Penang, and when I got off the bus I went to a tea shop and met a Rohingya man, a refugee with a UN card. I explained my story to the man, and that I had no place to stay, and the man told me to follow him and got me a job. – Rohingya Refugee[4]

While it may be illegal to employ a refugee, some Malaysians are willing to take the risk and prefer hiring refugees. They can do it for both charitable or exploitative reasons. This is shown by UNHCR, 2019 whereby the main registered sectors of informal employment for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia were agriculture, construction, and cleaning with over 47,000 workers employed[6]

Source: Says

The most common form of employment are refugees working on a short term contract basis, resulting in refugees going from job to job[4].

There are advantages to these work arrangements, for example, a refugee named Halek, who has been living in Malaysia for over twenty years has been working multiple construction jobs. His work environment forced him to learn to speak Malay and as a result, he was able to find new job opportunities with the newfound language.  After four years of hard work and learning Malay in the process, he was able to save money to pay for his family to join him in Malaysia[4]

However as these contracts are difficult to come by, there are other informal jobs that refugees take on. For example, the self-employed sector includes recycling collectors, fish sellers, daycare workers, restaurant or shop managers.

There are also those that work for refugee communities. Some act as Imam for their community. Others work as NGO workers or educators, teaching refugee children. A refugee named Noor ran a daycare programme for local Malaysian children. She loves her job and has integrated well into the Malaysian community, rarely being harassed by police. Noor’s case is one in a million where she has successfully and seamlessly blended into Malaysian society[4]

For illustration purposes only. The above picture is of a member of the Rohingya Women’s Development Network (RDWN) raising awareness on nutrition, hygiene and family finance to a Rohingya community in Malaysia. Source: ICMC

A sad reality that many refugees face is that the skills that helped them find work in their home countries are not valid or useful in finding work opportunities in Malaysia[4]. A farmer in Myanmar rarely gets similar work in Malaysia. The same goes for fishermen, cleaners, and students. Usually, those with skill sets in construction work, food and beverage, mechanics, and shop workers are more likely to find work relatively similar to their expertise[4].

Source: Anadolu Agency

Self-employed refugees are commonly considered as the few who were able to beat the odds. Mohamed, a Myanmar refugee, originally worked as a grass cutter in Malaysia[4]. However, with his previous skills as a businessman in Myanmar, he began selling goods from his car and managed to save RM30,000 in three years. With several ups and downs in his career including rising competition, an increase in police bribes, and severe injuries, he finally opened a tea shop. Due to his hard work, and strong connections he was able to succeed. Mohamed is considered a success story in his community, yet even now he still struggles to keep his business alive[4]

At the end of the day, regardless of the form of employment, all these refugees are working towards a better life. When asked they said they simply want to achieve financial stability, the UNHCR card, and to obtain the rights and freedoms they deserve as human beings. Many are pushing forward, not for their own lives, but for the sake of their children’s futures[4].

An ethnic Rohingya refugee residing in Malaysia, holds his baby daughter while waiting under a flyover near the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kuala Lumpur on August 11, 2015. Source: Foreign Policy

If we have full rights and freedoms anywhere and the ability to improve our life I would go to that place – not necessarily resettle, could be Myanmar, Malaysia or anywhere. – A Rohingya Refugee[4]

Here are several organizations and businesses working with the refugee communities, helping in fields of employment. 

  • Tenaganita: Founded in 1991, born out of the struggles of women workers in the plantations and industrial sectors to gain their rights as workers; for decent wages, decent living conditions and to stop discrimination and gender-based violence. The organization currently has three major focus areas of work: Migrant and Refugee Rights Protection; Anti-trafficking in Persons; and Business Accountability and Responsibility. 
  • Rohingya Project: Aims to create the foundation for a viable future for the stateless Rohingya by connecting them digitally to opportunities to learn, equip and empower themselves. Through the creation of a Financial and Social Inclusion platform, those Rohingya who for years have been sidelined can be given access to a range of virtual services including online education, digital identity and reward tokens. The platform will tap into the potential of the Rohingya community and other marginalized people and offer options to counter their exclusion from the mainstream. 
  • Kneading Peace (Bakery):  It’s more than just a conventional bakery that serves up scrumptious baked goods. They train and empower refugee communities to have a skill that can improve their livelihoods. Visit their cafe shop in Melaka.
  • The Elham Project:  Started in 2011 to provide refugee and asylum-seeking women with an opportunity to earn an income through making and selling artisanal crafts. Vocational training is provided and traditional designs and methods are encouraged in the making of bags, jewellery, clothes, and household products. Their online store also has food and catering services cooked by refugee women. 
  • Somali Refugee Community Malaysia: Sells baked goods made fresh by a Somalian Chef. All the profits made in sales are redistributed back into the refugee community helping children, single mothers, the ill, those with disabilities, and of course the elderly. Situated in Gombak, this small business always tries to go above and beyond for its people. They have organized collaborations with mobile clinics, distributed food to those in need and taken care of their community overall. 
  • PichaEats: Serves delicious, hearty, heartwarming meals right to your doorstep! Every meal has a story woven into it. Refugee women take pride in their ability to cook and feed others and they are offering customers a taste of their home country through their food. You can order one-off meals, subscribe to their monthly meal orders or cater from them for events. Through PichaEats, you make a change to their lives just by enjoying a good meal!

Find data, maps and how you can help in our report – Providing Hope For The Refugees in Klang Valley.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. UNHCR Malaysia. (2019). What is a refugee. Link.
  2. UNHCR. (2017). Walking a Mile in a Refugee’s Shoes. Link. 
  3. UNHCR. (2021). Figures at a Glance in Malaysia. Link. 
  4. C. Wake & T. Cheung. (2016). Livelihoods Strategies of Rohingya Refugees In Malaysia. ‘We Want To Live in Dignity’. HPG Working Paper. Link.
  5. DOSM. (2021). Labour Market Review Malaysia, Fourth Quarter 2020. Link.
  6. Todd, L. et al. (2019). The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work. IDEAS Malaysia. Link.

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