KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is a beacon for ethnic Rohingya fleeing oppression and violence in Myanmar, but countless migrants like Mohammed Ismail are still searching for the promised land years after arriving.
Mohammed is among tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have risked their lives over the years to reach Malaysia, only to find a stateless limbo and a new kind of marginalisation.
â€œEvery day, I regret coming to Malaysia but I had no choice,â€ said Mohammed, 40, who fled his home in Myanmar in 1992 to escape being forced by authorities into a labour camp.
Scraping by in Malaysia on low-paying construction jobs, he has been arrested twice as an undocumented migrant and deported once.
The plight of the Rohingya has drawn international attention following the migrant crisis that erupted last month, in which thousands of impoverished Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants struggled desperately to reach South-East Asian countries.
Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept them pending possible repatriation or resettlement to third countries as refugees.
But Rohingya asylum seekers and labour activists say most will likely face the same limbo endured by Mohammed.
Rohingya flock to Malaysia because it is Muslim-majority and has a thriving economy with jobs in construction, agriculture and manufacturing that require little skill.
But legal protections are few for the 45,000 Rohingya registered as refugees with the UN in Malaysia, and particularly for the estimated tens of thousands who lack such status.
Malaysia has never signed the UNâ€™s Refugee Convention and is thus not obliged to provide any social services to Mohammed, his wife and baby daughter, such as schooling or healthcare.
Most Rohingya pin their hopes on gaining the coveted UN refugee card, which affords a glimmer of protection from authorities.
But that can take years, followed by many more before resettlement to the United States, Australia or elsewhere can be gained â€“ if ever.
Mohammed landed a refugee card in 2004, but a seven-year-old application for resettlement overseas has gone nowhere.
â€œMy wife and I, at least we know we wonâ€™t get killed in Malaysia and we are thankful for that. But my daughter will not get a proper education here,â€ he said.
The UN calls the Rohingya one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
Rohingya complain of systematic mistreatment by Myanmarâ€™s Buddhist-majority government, which refuses to even recognise them as citizens. Many have been killed in sectarian clashes in recent years.
Despite this, Richard Towle, the UN refugee agencyâ€™s representative in Malaysia, said â€œhistorically the Rohingya have not been settled out of Malaysia in high numbersâ€. He declined to speculate why.
But Aegile Fernandez of Malaysian migrant-rights group Tenaganita blamed Western â€œIslamophobiaâ€.
â€œWith rising Islamophobia, most countries are closing their doors to Muslim refugees,â€ she said.
There are, however, fresh hopes that growing awareness of the Rohingya plight could open doors overseas.
But Towle said the difficulties in resettling large numbers means alternatives need to be explored, including improving the status of Rohingya already in Malaysia to better their lives and prevent abuses.
â€œIf they are going to be here anyway, itâ€™s better to regularise their status,â€ he said.
Malaysia, however, has long resisted moves that may draw a new wave of migrants. â€” AFP