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Over 70,000 Africans migrated to Malaysia in 2012. While many have found a better life, some continue to live rough in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest cities, Kuala Lumpur.
Robert Adesina takes the train to work in central Kuala Lumpur every morning. He enters a carriage and almost everyone stops and stares.
“It’s like this everyday. They think I am some sort of alien,” he tells DW.
The Nigerian national sits next to a woman, who then abruptly puts her hand on her mouth, shielding herself from a perceived stench.
“It’s actually quite interesting. You would think children would react this way to people they have never seen before. But grown men and women do this all the time. The ignorance towards Africans in this country is astounding,” Adesina said.
According to Malaysia’s immigration department, 79,352 Africans entered the country in 2012, and 25,467 student visas were issued to Africans to pursue studies at public or private institutions.
Whether working or studying, African immigrants aspire for the same thing – a chance for a better quality of life in Malaysia.
However, many continue to struggle. I meet Michael Oni at a market just outside the city. He holds a student visa, and tells those who ask that he is studying economics at a local university. But his parents in Nigeria think he is working here.
“I feel like another African statistic,” he says. “The ones you pity and feel sorry for, just another black man struggling to make it in the world,” he tells DW
“There’s no life in Nigeria, I want to do well here, and be a better person, earn some money.”
He says he’s been offered “jobs” by members of Nigerian criminal gangs, which include drug running, sex trafficking and scams. Considering a mandatory death sentence for anyone caught trafficking drugs, Adesina is hesitant to get involved.
While an overwhelming majority of Africans study and work legally in Malaysia, a dark underbelly of crime and violence exists in Kuala Lumpur, and DW has gained access to an African crime gang operating in various parts of the city.
One of the leaders of this group is a Nigerian, now living here illegally. He did not want to give his name out of fear of being deported. But he told DW that crime is the only way he can make a living in this country.
“Do you think I haven’t tried the usual, legal means of making money in Kuala Lumpur? I am just a black monkey to these Asians. They won’t even look me in the eye.”
“First I tried to study, get an education, and then find work. That was my plan. But even studying here is too hard. Look, I get a lot of money selling drugs, and most of it I send home to my family, so if this is the only way I can make a living, then so be it.”
Another of his colleagues also told DW that many Nigerians resort to crime, along with studying.
“It’s so easy to get a student visa. But, despite the death penalty for [drug] trafficking, the demand for drugs here is high, so many of us make extra money on the side,” he said.
Kofi Addo, an employee at the Ghanaian embassy, says Africans who live in Malaysia are seen as a monolithic entity.
“The media, in some ways, is responsible for this. Every article where Africans have been involved in a crime, or immigration issue, their country of origin is never clarified. They are just ‘Africans,'” he told DW.
“To these journalists, who are supposed to be intelligent, not know that there are 55 countries on the continent? Most of us are here legally and make an honest living. It’s time they started reporting on the contribution we make to this country.”
Tony Epstein, a lecturer in applied psychology says that Southeast Asians are simply unaware of how to treat Africans, and do not understand their culture.
“Malaysia was originally colonized by Britain, and during this period, the local population gained an understanding of European culture, but that is pretty much all they understand outside of Asian customs,” he told DW
“The way people respond to Africans here is, in my opinion, not borne out of racism, but of ignorance.”
The trend of African migration to Asia is relatively new. Analysts attribute this to the continued economic struggles of Europe, and the ever-tightening restrictions on African migration.
Steven Njordge, professor in business management at the University of Malaya told DW that Europe had become a fortress.
“Over the past decade, hundreds of Africans have died trying to cross into Europe, and if some do make it, increasing restrictions have seen dozens deported.”
“Yes, some do end up staying in Europe, but many tell me that life is extremely difficult given the eurozone crisis. However, the economic rise of Asia has appealed to Africans, and they see this as an opportunity to make a living and help their families out of poverty.”
Many African professionals in Kuala Lumpur still hope for a time where future generations will not have to migrate to other countries to seek a better life.
“I do believe that Africa as a continent will achieve success, and who knows, maybe you will see people trying to cross into Africa one day, instead of the other way around,” Robert Adesina says.