Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Mahmoud was well into his shift baking bread when a burst of urgent shouts warned him of an approaching cordon of men in uniform.
Time was of the essence and the 19-year-old, ever alert, wasted none of it.
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By the time the immigration officers barged into the bakery, trawling for those without proper documents, Mahmoud was already dashing up a nearby flight of stairs. He stopped only after reaching the seventh floor of the building, located on the southern outskirts of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
“I watched out from the window and saw they had detained many young people,” Mahmoud recalls. “They took all my friends,” he says, his softly spoken voice slightly at odds with his towering stature.
“I hid until they left.”
"I think I lost my life here."
With no legal status or protection, Yemeni refugees in Malaysia are stuck in a life of limbo. pic.twitter.com/YsDypoPsQq
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 13, 2019
Mahmoud is Yemeni. Like thousands before him, he escaped his country’s catastrophic war a year ago to seek refuge in Malaysia – one of a handful of countries worldwide to offer visa-free entry to Yemenis.
But today, Mahmoud is part of a struggling community pushed into a fragile existence in society’s shadows.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations convention recognising refugees, while its dated immigration laws – enacted in 1959 and revised in 1963 – do not distinguish between those seeking asylum and those entering the country irregularly.
As a result, refugees are denied a host of rights and, crucially, are barred from legally working and sending their children to state-run schools.
Without key legal protections and given little aid, refugees end up scraping a precarious living in informal sectors – and in the case of most Yemenis, taking on low-paying jobs in restaurants and other food stores owned by their compatriots who had settled in Malaysia in the years and decades before the war.
“There is no money and life is insecure,” says Mahmoud, who sees his dream of becoming a doctor slipping away. “I feel lost.”
Yemen’s latest conflict broke out in late 2014 when Houthi rebels, allied with forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
The war escalated in March 2015 when a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a fierce air campaign against the rebels in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Since then, tens of thousands of civilians and combatants have been killed and as many as 85,000 children may have starved to death.
Millions of people have been forced from their homes as a result, with many fleeing for safer shores abroad. Some have sought refuge in Malaysia – a country which in the past has acted to protect persecuted Muslim populations from places such as Bosnia, Syria and Cambodia.
Malaysian authorities have long allowed the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) to register refugees and provide some services on humanitarian grounds, even though the country has never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
UNHCR cardholders, however, are denied the right to work and go to school in the country. The government provides a 50-percent discount to those officially recognised as refugees to access healthcare services at state-run facilities.
But registration itself can take months or years, leaving many who are waiting to receive their card at risk of being arrested and locked up at any time.
Even if they are registered, as in the case of Mahmoud and his friends last month, refugees remain liable for detention under Malaysian law should they be caught working – although some officers are willing to turn a blind eye during immigration raids.
Alice Nah, a Malaysian academic and expert on refugee issues, says those seeking asylum in Malaysia – a popular destination because of its strong economy and peaceful multi-ethnic society – are often “surprised” by the way they are targeted in immigration operations.
“[That’s] not necessarily because they are refugees fleeing war and persecution, but because they are perceived to be migrants with irregular status,” she adds, urging authorities to “recognise current realities and take the protection of refugees and other non-citizens seriously”.
Activists have also been calling on Malaysia’s new government, which took office last year after defeating a ruling coalition that had governed the country for six decades, to fulfil campaign promises over human rights reforms and sign up to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol.
When asked last month by Al Jazeera about Yemeni refugees’ access to work and education, Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia’s foreign minister, replied: “I think we are open to proposals.”
Still, Malaysia’s long-standing refugee policies ensure Yemeni refugees remain in a state of near-constant fear and uncertainty, deterring them from being able to think of the country as home.
“How can we feel it’s our home, without having any rights?” asks Badria Mohammed Albadani, who fled Yemen’s war four years ago. “We want to feel like that but they have to help us … to have education and at the same time allow us to have a job without the fear that someone will come and attack us.”
A former airline employee in Sanaa, 36-year-old Albadani is now a volunteer coordinator at a community-run centre that helps fleeing Yemenis.
Located on the first floor of a rundown southern Kuala Lumpur building and overlooking a street lined with Arab shops and restaurants, the modest space offers language lessons to Yemeni men, women and children, as well as workshops and community advocacy.
“We try to give some things and skills to the people that they need fast,” says Mohammed al-Radhy, a community leader and the head of the Tangible Association of Yemeni Refugees (TAYR).
“Before this centre, the people were [dispersed] everywhere. If they needed any kind of help, they didn’t know where to ask. Now, if anyone needs help, if they have a health problem or are arrested or they need to ask about anything, they directly call and we give them the help we can,” Radhy adds.
After a brief pause to check his continuously flashing phone, the 46-year-old admits that he is rarely at the centre he founded three years ago.
“I work in my car; I [am always going] to the hospitals, to the prisons, to meet NGOs, to the families.
“We need help,” he says, with a sigh. “We have no permit to work, no education, no health(care). We have nothing.”
Inside the TAYR centre, Mokhtar bin Dorob teaches an afternoon English class to a small group of young students. He is also a volunteer, making do with whatever meagre – if any – amounts the students can afford to chip in. The holder of a Master’s degree in educational technology, the 34-year-old is passionate about using online tools to help improve the lives of his community.
“I’m trying to use WhatsApp to create videos for the students to interact,” he says, standing between two battered, oscillating fans that cool the stiflingly humid air. “I’m interested in integrating technology to help Yemenis with the barriers [they face].”
But it’s not just in informal classrooms that technology has had an effect. In the absence of institutionalised support, many Yemeni refugees are increasingly relying on messaging-app groups to share news about the community, discuss problems and coordinate action – as well as warn each other about immigration raids and even generate some much-needed income.
“I sell bread by [taking orders on] WhatsApp,” says Amira, a 39-year-old mother of two daughters. “At times, there’s work and at others, there isn’t – for example, this month, I’ve only had two orders.”
Amira says she and her husband “sold everything” four years ago to flee air raids in the southwestern Yemeni city of Taiz and bring their children to safety.
But since arriving in Malaysia, the family’s ordeal has only continued.
“When we first got here, we felt humiliated; we’d only have one meal per day,” says Amira.
“After we got the [UNHCR] card, they said they would help us but we didn’t get anything,” she adds.
“When my story spread on Facebook, university students offered me housing here,” she continues.
But the situation remains dire.
Amira says she was previously exploited by local employers who turned out to be “crooks”, while her husband, a chef, has been struggling with severe health problems that prevent him from working.
“We left from war and found ourselves in another war,” Amira says, her two daughters – aged four and seven – sitting quietly at her feet. “War with hunger, war with housing.”
Stuck in a life of limbo, Amira says her only wish is for her family to be resettled to another country where her “daughters feel safe and can acquire an education and [a better life].
“The most important thing is my children’s future,” she says, her voice choking with tears. “The most important thing is that they will not be lost.
“There is no hope here in Malaysia.”