There are more than 62,000 Rohingya in Malaysia, escaping persecution at home in Myanmar, but are unable to settle down.
Alor Setar, Malaysia – Shahjan Bibi, 45, came to Malaysia from Myanmar on a boat with her six children four years ago.
Initially, she was reluctant to leave her home in Maungdaw, Rakhine state.
“In my village, life was good,” Bibi recalled. “Then the Myanmar military started making life difficult for us. They beat us up, burned down our homes and took our land.”
Bibi is a Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar which is largely stateless. The Myanmar government regards them as illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and has persecuted them for decades.
Out of desperation, and wanting a better future for her family, Bibi paid a human smuggler to get them out of Myanmar. Her husband was living in Malaysia at that time and the first leg of a journey that would take them there.
Shahjan Bibi sits inside the family home with the youngest of her six children [Paul Gates/Al Jazeera]
Bibi recalls how rough the sea was when she was on the boat with her family and other people. The boat was cramped and there was little food and water. One passenger did not survive.
“I was scared. I thought I could die, too,” Bibi said.
The boat eventually moored in waters off Thailand. From there, the refugees were taken to the Thai mainland before being moved to Malaysia.
Bibi and her children ended up in Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah state in northern Malaysia.
More than 62,000 Rohingya live in Malaysia. Some have been there for years. Many end up here because there are several entry points into Malaysia from Thailand, which is often part of the transit route from Myanmar.
The family rents a ramshackle wooden house in a village just outside the city.
Three of her sons do odd-jobs to help out with expenses. But without any legal status, they are only able to take on menial work and are vulnerable to exploitation.
This school in Alor Setar is run by an umbrella Muslim aid group known as the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organization; Rohingya children cannot attend government schools. [Paul Gates/Al Jazeera]
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and as such does not grant refugees protection. Refugees can’t work legally or access public services such as government schools.
The biggest worry for Bibi, who has health problems, is her children.
“Now that my husband is no longer here, I can’t bear to think what will happen to them if I’m gone, too.”
Not all refugee stories are bleak, however.
After 17 years in Malaysia, 33-year-old Enamullah Bin Shuna Miah is finally moving to a third country – New Zealand.
His asylum application was approved on the third attempt.
“I wasn’t planning to apply. I was comfortable with life here, but I thought about my children. What sort of future will they have if we continue to stay here,” Miah said.
He wants his children, aged six to 11, to get an education and a chance to fulfil their dreams.
“My oldest boy wants to be part of the police. The second son wants to be an engineer. And my youngest daughter says she wants to be a teacher.”
Enamullah Bin Shuna Miah is a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar but has been living a reasonable life in Malaysia for the last 17 years. He is looking forward to eventually moving to New Zealand after their asylum application was approved [Paul Gates/Al Jazeera]