Refugees rely on public donations to get by

by RAHIMI YUNUS/ pic by AFP

THERE is another group that is teetering on the brink of despair amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the country — refugees — as they struggle to earn a living amid the Movement Control Order (MCO).

As at February 2020, close to 179,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, including 86% or 154,080 from Myanmar — comprising 101,010 Rohingyas, 22,810 Chins and 30,250 others.

Other refugees and asylum seekers include some 6,660 Pakistanis, 3,680 Yemenis, 3,290 Somalis, 3,290 Syrians, 2,590 Afghans, 1,830 Sri Lankans, 1,270 Iraqis and 790 Palestinians.

On paper, this group, who fled their countries to rebuild their life, has no legal rights to work here. In reality, the refugees need to work to earn a living, although informally.

They work as car washers, dishwashers, painters, electricians, restaurant waiters, cleaners and a few other jobs that need extra manpower temporarily, according to Lukes Chnann, founder of Hope For Pakistani Refugee group.

“Some of us are lucky to have jobs, but since the MCO implementation, we as refugees are having a difficult time facing health, rental and utility payment issues as we do not have any savings, and the help we are getting from donors is only enough to feed us,” Chnann told The Malaysian Reserve.

No Money for Food, Rent

Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol, and does not have an asylum system regulating the status and rights of refugees.

The country’s law makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants. Refugees are vulnerable to arrest for immigration offences.

Malaysia has previously indicated that it is considering proposals by the UNHCR to allow refugees the right to work and to improve their access to education and healthcare.

Chnann said many in his community, as well as other refugees, have not received their wages and thus are unable to pay rent and bring food to the table.

“I have been working for Pakistani refugees in Malaysia since 2009, but this is the first time I get many calls from our community members that they do not have enough food and many do not have money to pay rent.

“Some of our community members have been threatened that the unit will be locked if they do not pay the rent,” he added.

A Sense of Hope

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been working tirelessly during the MCO to distribute aid, particularly food, to foreign workers and refugees.

Our Journey director and founder Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna said the group has been providing RM75 worth of staple food to migrant workers that could sustain one person for about three weeks.

“We give the Indonesian workers 5kg of rice, 30 pieces of egg in one tray, two cans of sardines, 2kg of onions, a 1kg packet of oil and 10 packs of instant noodles.

“South Asian workers from Nepal, Bangladesh and India prefer to be given potatoes and dhal over noodles and sardines,” she said.

Kishna said Our Journey started its initiative with RM70 to RM75 worth of food supply each, but the amount needed has been reduced to between RM50 and RM55 via wholesale purchases.

She said the focus, for now, is to provide food aid before working on foreign workers’ labour issues once the MCO ends.

Chnann said the government, NGOs and kind-hearted individuals have been supporting the life and welfare of refugees.

“We thank UNHCR for their support and also the Malaysian government for treating us like their fellow citizens and not refugees, and we would love to repay this great help in any way possible to show our gratitude to the citizens of Malaysia and the Malaysian government,” he said.

As Covid-19 hits everyone regardless of background and social status, winning the Covid-19 war indeed is a fight for humanity.