It seems there is often a misconception that migrants and refugees are both the same and many might be confused as to what the difference is between these terms. However, this distinction is very important as confusing these terms may lead to problems with the government and how they are treated.
According to the UNHCR, migrants are those who choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons whilst refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution in their countries. 
As migrant workers play such an important role in Malaysia’s economy, there are several industries that are heavily dependent on migrant workers including manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing . These are low-skilled roles, of which nearly half is made up of foreign workers. 
Of the more than 550,000 Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia, an estimated 250,000 are undocumented workers, with up to approximately 50,000 currently struggling to make a living due to COVID-19 and the continued lockdown.  With no government benefits or support available, many are unable to cope due to the drastic impacts of the pandemic on their survival. 
Wiki Impact had a conversation with 11 migrant workers from Myanmar in the community and why they came to Malaysia and the challenges they have faced up until now:
1. Aung Ko Oo
Aung, 29, KL, has been living in Malaysia for over 4 years and was a tennis coach making RM1600 before he lost his job due to COVID-19 and the MCO 3.0.
Originally, Aung came to Malaysia for better job prospects and was offered a job opportunity to teach tennis from his old Malaysian coach.
“Now I am facing house payments and food are challenging me. That’s why I’m trying to look for a temporary job that I can do till the lockdown ends. But I can’t find any yet”
Although Aung pays taxes he does not receive any benefits and hopes and prays that the lockdown will end as soon as possible so that he can keep teaching tennis to kids. Aung is not alone with this predicament, as many foreign workers were severely affected by retrenchment and their unemployment rate increased by 134.0%. Dishearteningly, there are no social insurance or cash handouts readily available for them. 
If he is able to gain enough funds he dreams of eventually returning to Myanmar to open a kids tennis centre. Besides tennis, Aung would also like to help people if he had more money and start a restaurant business.
“Now I realised that in this kind of situation, food is essential.”
2. Than Htay
Than Htay, 26, KL, lives in a shared 9sq. foot room with 2 of his co-workers provided by his boss. He works at BKK Thai store as a packer earning RM600 although the income is not stable.
Recently, Than also had an operation and is unable to work physically demanding jobs. He says that he is having a really tough time providing for his wife and his 10-month old baby boy with the pandemic.
“I have to work cause I need to feed my family with this RM600 in this pandemic, but I can’t find a better job and can’t work every day to earn more money to feed my family. My wife is not working, just taking care of our baby.”
Than also cannot afford to go back home to his parents who are living in a forest camp in Myanmar after soldiers burnt down their home and village. He is part of the ACR (Alliance of Chin Refugees) and renews his card for RM50 every year but has not yet seen any benefits in living as a refugee in Malaysia.
Than came to Malaysia for his survival and hopes in the future that he can get a UNHRC card as soon as possible as there is no home left for him to return to in Myanmar.
“ I am hoping that we can go to another country that has opportunities for refugees. Either USA, UK, Australia, or Canada.”
3. Thawng Sian Piang
Thawng, 29, KL, has lived in Malaysia for 10 years already. He earns RM1600 using half (RM800) per month to pay rent for his wife and 14- month old daughter where he lives with 9 people of 3 different families all in the same house.
Sharing a home with other families is common among the community as it helps them to accommodate for high living expenses. Not only that it provides them with moral support and as a consideration for their safety. 
“He says he loves his work as a photographer/ video editor for an NGO school even though the salary is low as the school really cares about refugees. “
Even without his UNHCR card which was taken back in 2018, the school still hired him and for that he is grateful to keep working.
Before, Thawng worked an online marketing job that paid RM1400 and could not afford to feed his family having to borrow from friends who he has not been able to pay back.
Now, with the lockdown and having to stay at home, Thawng is once again having financial problems and cannot afford to provide for his family.
“ I don’t have money to buy milk for the baby and pay for house rent. I don’t know what to do now.”
Although his wife had a UNHCR card, it has now expired and cannot be renewed with the current situation. Thawng is connected to the ZRC (Zomi Refugees Community) and does not have plans to return to Myanmar although he hopes to get his UNHCR card back again.
4. Arkar Kyaw
Arkar, 42, KL has been living in Malaysia for 14 years and can speak both English and BM. When he first came to Malaysia, Arkar had many problems working due to the language difficulties.
“ I tried hard to learn the local language and English.”
Now, he enjoys reading and wants to learn more languages. He works as a waiter earning RM1700 and enjoys serving and seeing customers satisfied with their meals.
Before becoming a waiter, Arkar worked for 8 hours a day at a snooker centre. However, just like everyone else in Malaysia he is facing more problems due to the impact of the pandemic and lockdown.
5. Min Min Naing
Min Min, 32, KL, first came to Malaysia when he was 20 and loves cooking at his job as a lead kitchen chef earning RM1800. He lives with his wife and 4-year old son.
Min Min would also like his son to grow up to become a great chef although he is currently too young to say. It is important that his son receives an education.
“He wants his son to study here in Malaysia.”
Min Min used to stay in Malaysia without a passport and so at that time was very afraid of the police. However, now he faces the effects of COVID-19 and the MCO 3.0 lockdown as he cannot work at his job properly anymore with so many people affected by the pandemic.
Currently, he has no plans to leave Malaysia and return to Myanmar but hopes that the pandemic will clear up as soon as possible so he can get back to working without fear.
“One day, he wants to open his own chicken rice restaurant.”
6. Mi Pakao
Mi, 22, KL, is a teacher at Mon School earning only RM630 a month. She came to Malaysia in 2013 when she was 14 years old, also studying at Mon School.
After she went to MBT college with a sponsorship and graduated as a GDM, she came back to the Mon school and felt bad when she saw that there was no teacher. After discussing with her parents, she decided to help Mon School as a teacher and take care of the children.
She lives alone in a space provided by the school and says you cannot expect to earn much when you are working for the refugee community.
“ I love to give free hands to refugees community schools as a teacher.”
However, there are many challenges working with children and the community. Often, she is stressed and finds herself in many tough situations with families.
“ I have seen a lot of poor students’ families and they couldn’t pay for the school fees. Now some of the parents have left their kids for good here at Mon center. Kids are asking me to call their parents. I called for them but they didn’t pick up.”
Still, Mi loves her job and is glad that she chose to become a teacher and help the community out. She is also connected to TANMA( empowering women through handicraft).
7. James Bawi Thang Bik
James, 27, KL, is the Chairman of Alliance Of Chin Refugees (ACR). He earns around RM1300 a month volunteering and serving refugees. His favourite aspect of his job is achieving goals together with disadvantaged people and being the voice for the voiceless.
Since coming to Malaysia in 2010, James says he had learnt and gained a lot of knowledge about human rights issues especially surrounding refugees.
“The term refugee is not legalized or recognized by the government of Malaysia. Therefore, advocating for the rights for refugees who are living in Malaysia without rights is always a threat for me as a foreigner.”
The ACR is registered under the UN Refugee Agency and hopes that refugees and asylum seekers are treated as human beings with dignity and respect. James says that refugees and asylum seekers are just guests in other countries where the hope for the future is that of course one day these guests will be able to return to a peaceful home with dignity and safety.
“As for his own plans to return to Myanmar, he says that being a guest in another country where they are not treated as human is not easy”.
Therefore, he just like every refugee hopes to return home one day.
8. Vuum Khawl Nuam
Vuum, 28, is the chairwoman of Combine Mission Centre in Kuala Lumpur. CMC is a faith-based organisation that seeks to uplift struggling individuals through education and spiritual enlightenment, particularly those who face issues such as drug and alcohol addiction. Vuum has been residing in Malaysia for approximately 10 years.
Vuum lives with some of her patients in a rented hall in Pudu. For a monthly rental of RM3300, she utilizes the rented space as a hostel, housing alongside herself 6 girls and 11 boys who are in need of a place to stay. Apart from taking care of their needs and teaching them bible, she also integrates singing and community-building activities in their day-to-day routine.
“I really love my job because I get to do good and help change the lives of alcoholics and addicts. It really brings me joy when they become better.”
When Vuum first opened the centre, the biggest challenge she faced was trying to control the patients when their withdrawal symptoms arose. Things often became chaotic in the centre, sometimes even escalating into fights. But gradually, she learned how to take control of the situation and successfully overcame this problem. Now, Vuum struggles primarily with the difficulty of paying rent and electricity bills, which her landlord refuses to lower despite the pandemic.
With the help of local churches and organisations such as Zomi Refugees Community, Vuum is able to keep the centre afloat.
When asked about her plans for the future, Vuum does not plan to return to Myanmar. She hopes to one day move to a country that provides better prospects for refugees, and to continue her profound love for teaching there.
9. Seng Aung Ngwa
Seng, 28, KL, has been living in Malaysia for 8 years, and is currently working as a cashier. Together with his wife, he lives in a rented home that he shares with several friends and pays RM800 of rent per month. His wife used to work as a manicurist at a salon, but unfortunately is now unable to work due to lockdown measures.
“Truthfully, I don’t find my current job fulfilling. However, I continue working so that I can survive while I search for a better opportunity elsewhere.”
A football and fitness enthusiast, Seng actually harbours a dream to establish his own gym centre one day. His vigour for athleticism, sports and keeping fit motivates him to exercise up to 3 or 4 times each week.
Seng hopes to one day migrate with his wife to another country such as the US, UK, or Australia as he believes he can find a better future for them there.
10. Dr Min Min
Dr Min Min, 37, is a doctor who currently lives in Pudu, KL. He lives alone in a rented home, for which he pays RM1350 a month. The clinic Dr Min Min works at is called A.C.T.S (A Call To Serve). It is a faith-inspired organisation which provides medical assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.
Throughout his 7 years living in this country, Dr Min Min finds fulfillment in providing medical services to communities in need. He treats a large number of Burmese patients, and also some refugees from other foreign countries.
“What I love about my job is how when I help them, I can also get to know different cultures and foreign languages. I love learning more about social diversity.”
His hope for Myanmar is for the country to one day establish itself as a truly democratic nation.
11. Kyaw Moe
Kyaw Moe, 27, is a gardener who works at a durian farm in Selangor. He currently lives with his wife in a home provided by his employer. Having lived in Malaysia for 8 years, Kyaw is familiar with the Malay language.
When the pandemic started, his wife lost her job and the two faced increasing financial strain as they now depended on Kyaw as the sole breadwinner. This caused them to resort to borrowing money from friends, which he is currently working hard to repay.
“My job is very stressful, and it’s even harder because my boss refuses to raise my salary even after I’ve worked with him for over 2 years.”
Previously, Kyaw worked at a car factory, and from there he grew an interest in automotive mechanics. His wife, on the other hand, had an affinity for fashion design and tailoring.
Kyaw hopes to gather enough funds so that they can one day return to their home country, Myanmar.
“We don’t really expect much. We just want to have a normal life and the ability to support our future children as well as our parents.”
Explore our sources:
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2016). UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right?. UNHCR. Link
- International Organization Migration. (2019). National Forum Addresses Forced Labour and Human Rights in Malaysia. IOM. Link
- Z. Z. Htwe. (2020). Without Work and Fearing Arrest, Undocumented Myanmar Migrants in Malaysia Take Their Own Lives. The Irrawaddy. Link
- Y. N. Lee. (2020). Neglect of migrant workers could hurt Malaysia’s economic recovery. CNBC. Link
- Khazanah Research Institute. (2021). Building Resilience: Towards Inclusive Social Protection in Malaysia. Link
- UNHCR. Malaysia. (2017). Livelihoods in Malaysia. Link
- Mixed Migration Center (MMC). (2020). Urban Mixed Migration Kuala Lumpur Case Study. Link
- M. Nungsari, S. Flanders, H. Y. Chuah. (2020) Poverty and precarious employment: the case of Rohingya refugee construction workers in Peninsular Malaysia. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7. Link