Full Circle with the Rohingya

This week, in a stifling hot room in Malaysia filled with more than 50 Rohingya refugees, my own work with the community came full circle. I was sitting among dozens of people who had fled the very same displacement camps in Sittwe, Myanmar that I had visited twice before in 2012 and 2014. When I arrived in September 2012, Rohingya were still entering the camps and there was almost no clean water, food, or shelter. People were literally starving. It was the worst situation I had ever witnessed. 

By 2014, the Rohingya had managed to create some sense of community inside the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), but the conditions remained dire. Malnourished women and newborns were still dying during childbirth and in the few days after because there were no doctors who could help revive them, children were dying of tuberculosis in the absence of treatment, and young men were being taken out of the camps, beaten, and detained without any recourse. 

For the past two weeks I have met with Rohingya who were formerly IDPs in Myanmar, and now refugees in Malaysia. Despite making it to another country, they are still in an incredibly vulnerable situation. Although a middle income country, the Malaysian government is not willing to take responsibility for refugee populations and no agency, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has much capacity to help them. So the Rohingya are once again subject to exploitation and extortion, with almost no access to education or health care. Their only real support system is within the community, which is extremely limited because everyone is struggling.

People were literally starving. It was the worst situation I had ever witnessed.

Desperate young men, women, and children left Myanmar’s Sittwe camps last year because they had been told by recruiters for the smuggling boats that they would be put in boats headed straight for Malaysia, where they would be able to start over, be treated better, and take up good jobs. None of that was true. 

Instead, they were crowded into boats of 1,000 or more people where they had to sit crouched at all times, sometimes for weeks on end. They were given one serving of rice per day and water from a barrel that tasted like salt water. Any complaints or cries for food or water resulted in beatings. When they arrived on land, they learned that they were in Thailand, not Malaysia, and that they would not be released from detention camps until their families paid on average $1,000, an extraordinary sum considering Rohingya can’t work legally in Myanmar or Malaysia. What happened inside these camps is well documented and the horrors they experienced remain with the Rohingya we met, even today.

Upon crossing the border into Malaysia, most of the Rohingya we met from Sittwe were immediately detained by Malaysian immigration authorities. Some could barely walk. One woman described herself as being “half-dead” upon arrival. They remained in grueling detention conditions in Malaysia for months, until UNHCR finally found them, registered them, and secured their release.

Life in Malaysia is a continuation of the absolute marginalization experienced by the Rohingya in Myanmar. They cannot rely on the police for protection because even with the UNHCR card they are considered “illegal” and may be detained again. They are extorted and beaten by some authorities and Malaysians, and they have nowhere to turn for help. Children can’t go to school, the hospitals remain prohibitively expensive (making access to health care a constant worry), and because they can’t legally work, people take whatever jobs they can get: inside houses, on constructions sites, and cleaning streets. Their wages are meager and whatever they can spare goes into rent and a little bit of food. The rest is sent back home to the IDP camps, where the situation is even more bleak and Rohingya rely on these remittances to survive.

Earlier this year, many of the Rohingya in IDP camps watched their families and friends on television, stranded on boats, and dying at sea and on land. They learned about the mass graves found in Thailand and Malaysia at the same time as the rest of us. Yet boats will be leaving from Sittwe again in the next few weeks, as the waters calm in what is considered the “sailing season.” We have been told that already recruiters in Sittwe are encouraging Rohingya to take their chances. It is hard to imagine how this could even be possible given the horror of the journey and the continued danger they face in countries of “refuge.” 

But for the Rohingya, there are no good options. There is no country in the region that is stepping up to its responsibility to welcome and protect them, so they will settle for what might be a possible improvement. This year, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Indonesia must do more, and the international community must finally hold Myanmar to account for the ongoing eradication of the Rohingya through policies of persecution, deprivation, and forced exile.

Despite the constant vigilance they must live under in Malaysia, the Rohingya we met would rather be here because they have acquired one luxury, something most of us take for granted: now they can sleep soundly at night.