KUALA LUMPUR - On the morning of March 2, 2012, Mohammad Yunus boarded a rickety wooden boat on the far eastern shores of Bangladesh with about 100 fellow Muslim Rohingya from the sprawling refugee camps of Cox's Bazar.
Yunus, then 22, had recently fled his native Myanmar, where bloody communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhists were driving thousands of Rohingya from their homes. Though safe in Bangladesh, Yunus soon found life in the teeming camps unbearable. He saw no more of a future for himself there than in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are denied citizenship and face heavy persecution.
After 11 harrowing days at sea, and three more evading authorities in the jungles of southern Thailand, Yunus was smuggled into Malaysia, where he hoped to pick up where his life had so suddenly stalled. But seven years on, he feels as though his life remains on hold.
Though Malaysia lets refugees register with the UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, the country provides them next to no aid and denies them the right to work, while charging them for health care. Rights groups say that leaves most refugees with little choice but to toil in the country's shadow economy, where they can fall prey to employers ready to exploit their desperation, paying them less than others or not at all. Refugees also are barred from attending government schools, cutting them off from another path to improving their lot.
"It has been a long seven years. Even though I have tried to improve my situation, it is not changing. It is like the curse started in Myanmar, and everywhere is the same," said Yunus, seated on the floor of his room in a bare-bones apartment he shares with six other refugees on Kuala Lumpur's east end.
The one-time physics student now works long hours on constructions sites across the city and knows what it is to break his back for days, only to be told at the end that he won't be getting paid.
Osman Goni, a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar in 2014, sees no future for himself in Malaysia either. The 23-year-old electrician also has been refused his promised pay on several occasions. He has bribed his way out of jail four times after police raids on his job sites.
"I have felt like I should finish my life, I was so desperate, just take poison and finish my life," he said. "How can I live my life this way? It's like another prison."
Rohingya make up more than half of the 176,000 refugees registered in Malaysia, according to the UNHCR, the largest population in Southeast Asia outside Myanmar. And with the camps in Bangladesh now bursting with more than 1 million Rohingya following a fresh bout of pogroms in Myanmar in 2017, more keep coming.
Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan coalition of political parties vowed to give refugees a path to legal employment in its 2018 election campaign manifesto. Since it took power more than a year ago, a few ministers have made accommodating remarks but have not yet taken any concrete steps to follow through.
Malaysia's Ministries of Home Affairs and Human Resources declined to comment for this story, as did the officer in charge of Rohingya Affairs for the National Security Council.
Rights groups say the government's reluctance stems partly from the fear that accommodating refugees further will draw a flood of new arrivals. But Lilianne Fan, who chairs the Rohingya Working Group for the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, says officials are coming to realize the Rohingya are being pushed by conditions in Bangladesh and Myanmar more than pulled by the promise of better jobs in Malaysia.
"The primary reasons they are here is because they're seeking protection. And, of course, in order to stay they deserve to have the right to work for survival," she said.
The refugees may even do the country some good.
A recent study by Malaysia's Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), an independent research group, found that the government could tap a legal refugee workforce for a $727 million (3 billion ringgit) boost to its gross domestic product and $12 million (50 million ringgit) in added tax revenue.
Working refugees with the law on their side can earn — and thus spend — more by landing jobs that better match their skills, having more reason to invest in training, and bargaining for higher wages.
The study also finds that refugees overwhelmingly compete for jobs with other migrant workers, not Malaysians, said Laurence Todd, IDEAS' director of research and development. A few older, low-skilled locals might lose out, he added, "but the net effect ... would be positive in that the economic activity generated by the Rohingya working [legally] would create more jobs," including some 4,000 for Malaysians.
Any move to make it happen, though, will also have to overcome Malaysia's fiercely tribal politics. The government already has backtracked on other key reform pledges under pressure from nationalist opposition parties quick to claim they would cost the country's majority ethnic Malays their own privileges. Alienating them further could cost Pakatan Harapan — already slipping in opinion polls — valuable votes in the next election.
In the meantime, Malaysia's Rohingya refugees remain in limbo, discouraged from putting down new roots, scared to return to a home that denies them basic human rights, and with shrinking options to move on as some Western countries tighten their immigration policies.
Todd said it means Malaysia's current "tolerate but don't integrate" approach is wearing thin, and the government soon may come to realize it will need to treat its Rohingya as something more than guests.
"Just kind of tolerating ... maybe 100,000 living in a kind of slightly ghettoized situation is going to become increasingly unsustainable if that number grows and they don't have anywhere else to go," he said. "So Malaysia's going to have to kind of face up to the decision of ... integrating that population on a sort of permanent or semi-permanent basis."