'We have nothing': A life in limbo for Malaysia's Yemeni refugees

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.

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."

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.

There are currently more than 3,100 Yemenis officially registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, while thousands more are unregistered. Overall, about 165,000 refugees and asylum seekers are signed up with the agency in the Southeast Asian country, with the vast majority hailing from Myanmar, mainly members of its majority-Muslim Rohingya minority.

Soure: Al Jazeera