A Return to Malaysia

Earlier this year, the world watched in both horror and sadness as thousands of desperate Rohingya who had fled persecution in Myanmar were abandoned on boats without food or water. As countless numbers died of dehydration and starvation each day, neighboring countries quarreled over who should take them in and how limited their assistance would be. Finally, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept up to 7,000 Rohingya, but only on the condition that they would be resettled out of their countries within a year. 

Those watching from their living rooms may have thought this was a new problem, a new story. But the plight of the Rohingya is neither new nor unknown in the region. For decades, the Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar for neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, among other countries. This is not an economic “migrant” problem. Those taking to boats, a treacherous journey at the best of times, are leaving a country that has taken away their citizenship, prohibited them from working and attending school, limited their right to have children, enslaved them in construction and other government projects, and beaten, detained and tortured thousands. Since a wave of massive violence against the Rohingya in 2012, ten percent of the population has fled and another ten percent have been segregated in ghetto camps.

UNHCR has registered over 40,000 Rohingya in Malaysia, but some estimate that there are upwards of an additional 100,000 unregistered in the country. Whether registered or not, there is very little access to any humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya. They avoid interacting with the police because they are almost always negative experiences, resulting in the payment of bribes and/or immigration detention. Despite policy discussions on new resettlement opportunities for the Rohingya given the increasing numbers fleeing Myanmar, the reality is that most will never be afforded the opportunity to resettle in another country. Yet Malaysia refuses to accept that the Rohingya are there to stay, and that they need opportunities to attend school, work legally, and have access to protection.

Since a wave of massive violence against the Rohingya in 2012, ten percent of the population has fled and another ten percent have been segregated in ghetto camps.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and this leaves UNHCR as the lead protection actor for this vulnerable population. UNHCR is also restricted in its ability to assist, however, and its strongest role is in negotiating for the release of Rohingya from detention, if they are registered with the agency. As in many refugee locations, Rohingya take up work wherever they can find it, whether in houses as maids or on construction sites as builders, and this leaves them open to exploitation with little chance for recourse – if they were to go to the police, they would be more likely to be detained as “illegal” foreigners than protected as the victims of crime. And, very often, remittances sent to families back in Myanmar leave little to survive on in their new country. Because the Rohingya are so restricted in Myanmar, they rely on family members overseas to pay for food, health care, and other basic needs. This is true even for those living in UNHCR-run camps for the internally displaced.  

Regional and international discussions continue as contingency planning for the new sailing season is set to begin in October. UNHCR has already warned that a new wave of Rohingya will take to the boats soon, and they will need access to safety in neighboring countries. While regional actors have made a concerted effort to crackdown on the smugglers and traffickers who pave the way for the Rohingya, there has been almost no effort put into addressing the needs of the Rohingya, who run from persecution and experience unimaginable abuse along the way. 

Malaysia is currently the chair of ASEAN, the regional body that coordinates economic and political priorities in the region. It is in a unique position to demonstrate leadership in both the planning of a humane regional response to the upcoming sailing season, and in seeking short- and long-term solutions for the Rohingya both in their home country of Myanmar and also among regional nations. 

To better understand the humanitarian needs and coping mechanisms of the Rohingya, RI is traveling to Malaysia to meet with those who have lived in the country for decades, as well as those who have arrived since 2012. RI will also meet with government actors, UN agencies, and NGOs who engage with the Rohingya community to better understand what possibilities exist to improve their existence in the country, whether in the short- or long-term. This will be RI’s third visit to Malaysia focused on the Rohingya community.