Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Mohammad, who prefers to keep his real name secret for fear of reprisals, once owned a factory producing shampoo and soap in Homs. But Syria’s three-year civil war left his business a bombed-out ruin and brought an end to the family’s comfortable, even well-to-do, existence.
Two years ago, Mohammad arrived in Malaysia – a country that doesn’t officially recognise refugees. While most of his immediate family has now joined him, other relatives remain in the rubble of their hometown. One son is dead; killed last August as he fought with the one of the numerous rebel groups involved in the conflict.
Seated in wicker chairs among rows of books at a refugee counselling centre in Kuala Lumpur, Mohammad and his elegantly dressed wife watch the militia’s video tribute to their dead son on their tablet computer. They linger over the final frame, a blurry image of him as a toddler smiling, happy, and ignorant of the horrors to come.
“When we lost the factory, we could see what was happening,” Mohammad told Al Jazeera. “Then intelligence [agents] came to ask about our son: ‘Why is he supporting the demonstrations?'” Fearing for their safety, they fled first to Jordan. Knowing that Syrians were eligible for a three month visa-on-arrival, Mohammad flew on to Kuala Lumpur shortly afterwards. His family followed six months ago.
The Iraqis and Palestinians are used to being refugees. The Syrians aren't. For them, it's new.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says nearly 2.5 million people are now “persons of concern” as a result of the conflict in Syria. The overwhelming majority have sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East. But others – especially those with some money behind them – have found their way further afield.
The Malaysian office of the UN’s refugee agency said it had registered 822 Syrians by the end of December, compared with 285 in October and just eight before the war started. Refugee activists who work closely with the community said because of the length of time it takes to register officially, the actual number is probably even higher – perhaps in the “low thousands”.
The UN has been calling on the international community to provide more protection to Syrians fleeing the conflict. Germany has agreed to provide temporary homes to some 10,000 Syrians, while the UK says it will take some of the “most vulnerable” refugees. The US, meanwhile, has eased some immigration rules that have made it difficult for Syrians to claim asylum.
Malaysia has in the past provided permanent homes to limited numbers of refugees – including Muslim Chams from Cambodia in the 1980s, and a few hundred Bosnians in the early 1990s. The local office of the UNHCR last year thanked the Malaysian government for not forcibly returning any Syrian asylum-seekers to their homeland.
The government didn’t respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the increasing number of Syrians seeking refuge in the country.
“These cases make lawmakers and bureaucrats nervous everywhere,” said Joshua Snider, an assistant professor from the University of Nottingham, Malaysia. “Nation states do not want to permanently resettle large numbers of people. And they don’t want a situation where short-term protection turns into requests for long-term settlement.”
Without legal status in Malaysia, the 141,000 registered refugees – mostly from Myanmar – are not allowed to work and do not have access to public health services or education. Even with a UN refugee identification card, they remain at risk of detention and deportation.
To cope with the challenges of a life in limbo, many have formed informal networks and community groups to provide emotional support, medical services, schooling and skills training to their fellow countrymen.
The Malaysian Social Research Institute works with what it calls “minority refugees” – including Afghans, Somalis and the new arrivals from Syria. It gets financial support from the UNHCR and Credit Suisse, which helps fund the group’s community school, but admits it’s been “pushed to its limits” by the new arrivals.
Like Mohammad, many of the Syrians who end up in Malaysia have left behind comfortable lives. Unlike the displaced Palestinians and Iraqis who’ve also found their way to Malaysia from Syria, they’re unprepared for the deprivations and uncertainty that characterise refugee life. And even if they arrive with what they think is plenty of money, they find it quickly runs out.
“The Iraqis and Palestinians are used to being refugees,” said Lia Syed, the executive director of the institute. “The Syrians aren’t. For them, it’s new.”
Life as a refugee
After months of searching, Mohammad found work as a cook – he said for a much-reduced salary because he is a Syrian refugee. But because he can no longer afford to fly in and out of the country to renew his visa every three months, he has now become illegal. His passport will expire this month. His son’s has done so already, and the Syrian embassy in Kuala Lumpur has refused to renew it.
Their children are without formal schooling; they are without work and will likely slide into poverty, if they are not already impoverished.
Syed said people who arrived in Malaysia last October were initially given appointments for their “first instance” interview – a meeting designed to establish an individual’s status – in 2015. But she said the UN agency has recently given those arrivals priority; their cases will now be heard before the end of this year.
Still, getting the UN card, which identifies a person as a refugee under the agency’s protection, usually takes between 18 months and two years after the first instance interview.
“That’s one of the things we try to inform them [the Syrians] about being here,” Syed said. “It’s not enough to have money for one or two years. You need enough for six or seven years.”
Alice Nah is a long-term advocate for refugees in Malaysia and the region and now a research fellow at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights. She said providing Syrians with a temporary pass permitting them to work and their children to get an education would help them deal better with their situation.
“Without legal recognition, they are forced to live with irregular status; they are vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation,” she wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “Their children are without formal schooling; they are without work and will likely slide into poverty, if they are not already impoverished.”
Malaysia started its most recent crackdown on “illegal” migrants last month. Mohammad and his wife, like many others, are worried. They’re considering a move to Turkey – although without a passport or much money, it’s hard to see how.
In the meantime, they wait, with their lives in limbo, watching the video of their lost son, reminiscing about the past, and hoping for a better future.
“I don’t have a passport for my country or a visa for here,” Mohammad said. “I must belong to another planet.”
Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry