Still Adrift: Failure to Protect Rohingya in Malaysia and Thailand

A year and a half ago, thousands of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants and asylum-seekers were abandoned at sea, shocking and horrifying many around the world. But more than a year later, little has changed.

Governments and international agencies have fulfilled few promises to better protect Rohingya who, facing persecution in Myanmar, have seen flight as their only survival option. Rohingya asylum-seekers in Malaysia and Thailand, including many women and children who survived the May 2015 boat crisis, continue to face the threat of detention and restricted access to the most basic human rights, including to livelihoods, healthcare, and education. As tensions flare once again within Myanmar, the possibility of another boat crisis remains real, but whether international reaction would be different remains unclear. It is time for regional governments and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to act.

Wherever we get a safer life, that’s where we want to be.

Rohingya mother in Ampang, Malaysia

We would like to go back. We still have brothers and sisters in Myanmar… But if we returned, we’d definitely be arrested.


Despite the many high-level meetings and constructive ideas and commitments, little of substance has been implemented to suggest that the response to any future crisis would be any different.

Faced with many of the same restrictions as in Myanmar — including on access to work, education, healthcare, and freedom of movement — the lives of Rohingya in Malaysia remain better than life in Myanmar only in relative terms.


  • Malaysia must protect the human rights of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers inside its borders by:

    • Immediately convening the joint task force on refugee registration with UNHCR which was announced in March 2016;
    • Implementing Rohingya asylum-seeker work permit pilot program in cooperation with UNHCR;
    • Working with UNHCR and local local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to design a program for extending access to education to Rohingya children and accrediting education provided by NGO-run “learning centers”;
    • Fulfilling its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its own Child Act of 2001 by ending child detention and providing for the physical and psychosocial protection of child asylum-seekers and refugees.
  • UNHCR must take urgent steps to better fulfill its refugee protection mandate by:

    • Appointing one or more dedicated UNHCR officers as the first point of contact for all asylum-seekers approaching the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur;
    • Improving the Partner Referral System through outreach and coordination with NGOs and community leaders to develop clear points of contact and information (including public listing of partners) on alternative assistance options for those determined not to be priority cases for UNHCR, with special attention to ensuring pregnant and lactating Rohingya women are not denied life-saving access to medical care;
    • Expanding registration of Rohingya in Malaysia and the issuance of UNHCR identification cards, including by expanding the use of mobile registration options for Rohingya living substantial distances from Kuala Lumpur.
  • The Government of Thailand should fill protection gaps for Rohingya asylum seekers by:

    • Rescreening Rohingya for status as victims of human trafficking;
    • Implementing Cabinet Resolution no. 11/B.E.2559 to provide work opportunities and protection for witnesses in human trafficking trials;
    • Extending protections provided to victims of human trafficking to all survivors of the May 2015 boat crisis and eventually full protections to all asylum-seekers in Thailand;
    • Improving conditions in detention centers to meet international standards, ending indefinite detention, and providing UNHCR and NGOs with regular access to detainees;

    • Providing Rohingya interpreters and psychosocial care professionals for Rohingya in shelters.
  • Members of ASEAN and the Bali Process should take action on solutions discussed for addressing the threat of another regional boat crisis by:

    • Immediately setting up a task force on mixed movements of refugees and migrants as proposed at the May 29, 2015 Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean;
    • Providing funds for the ASEAN Trust Fund to Support Emergency Humanitarian and Relief Efforts in the Event of the Irregular Movement of Persons in Southeast Asia that were pledged at the July 2015 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting;
    • Agreeing to predetermined disembarkation points in the case of future regional boat crises;
    • Addressing the root causes behind the boat crisis by engaging the government of Myanmar on solutions, including granting citizenship to Rohingya in the long-term and freedom of movement in the short-term.
  • The United States should:

    • Include assessment of the effects of Malaysia and Thailand’s policies on Rohingya, including rescreening of Rohingya from the May 2015 boat crisis, in its Trafficking in Persons report for 2016. 

Daniel Sullivan traveled to Malaysia and Thailand in September and October 2016 with RI colleague Alice Thomas and in consultation with Fortify Rights, an independent nonprofit human rights organization based in Southeast Asia. The mission assessed the situation for Rohingya refugees and the status of regional efforts to prepare for and prevent any future boat crises. RI would like to extend special thanks to Puttanee Kangkun at Fortify Rights for her assistance and for accompanying RI staff in Thailand.