Why Malaysia is bracing for a fresh influx of Rohingya refugees

A boat carrying suspected Rohingya migrants pictured after being detained in Malaysian territorial waters in April 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

Hundreds of Rohingya have been arrested en route to Malaysia in recent months, with more planning to brave the arduous sea journey as life becomes increasingly unbearable in Myanmar and the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

Zafar Ahmad, a Rohingya activist based in Kuala Lumpur, said he had heard dozens of stories on WhatsApp of desperate people "willing to take the risk" — of arrest, deportation and possible death by drowning — so that they could escape the squalid conditions of the camps in Bangladesh, which are among the world's largest.

"There are over a million Rohingya in Cox's Bazar… it's a small place, with over a million living there," Zafar said, referring to the district in Bangladesh that houses the camps. "There are many reasons [to leave], not just one or two."

The Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, have long been persecuted in Myanmar. More than 700,000 fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017 to escape a military crackdown and they have since attempted to leave both countries for Malaysia on voyages that are often arranged by gangs of people smugglers.

The Malaysian government's heavy handed approach towards refugees has done little to dissuade them from attempting the perilous trip, with more than 600 Rohingya arrested trying to reach Malaysia over the past half-year, according to a Radio Free Asia report — an exodus that has been driven by a lack of jobs and food.

Data gathered from official statements issued by Myanmar's ruling military junta, as well as local media reports, shows that 270 Rohingya were detained in December alone, followed by scores of others in the ensuing months. In May, 124 refugees were reportedly detained.

Bangladesh has become increasingly inhospitable to Rohingya in recent years. Human Rights Watch reported in April that restrictions on refugees' livelihoods, education and movement within the camps had intensified, with authorities destroying thousands of Rohingya-run shops and banning community schools.

"Bangladesh is understandably burdened with hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees, but cutting them off from opportunities to work and study is only compounding their vulnerability and dependence on aid," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The cramped refugee camps in Cox's Bazar are also susceptible to floods during monsoon season. Six people reportedly drowned and thousands of others were displaced in July last year after 300mm of rain — half the monthly average — fell in just 24 hours, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Violence has also been an issue. In September, gunmen shot and killed a prominent Rohingya community leader in one of the camps, followed by another attack just a few weeks later that left at least six people dead.

Halting the exodus

Myanmar has been riven by internal conflict since last year's coup, when the military — whose ongoing persecution of the Rohingya was labelled a genocide by the US in March — overthrew the democratically elected government of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Zafar, who founded the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia, said peace in his homeland was first required for the refugee exodus to stop.

Read Also
6 Rohingya dead, hundreds flee after riot at Malaysian detention camp
6 Rohingya dead, hundreds flee after riot at Malaysian detention camp

"If the country is peaceful, no one wants to run away. Everyone loves their homeland. Where I'm born, that's my home. I miss my home country," he told This Week in Asia.

"The solution is not criminalising the Rohingya, who are victims of genocide and forced into prolonged displacement," said Lilianne Fan.

But Rohingya lack basic human rights and protection in Myanmar, said activist Lilianne of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a Malaysian NGO, and they will continue to flee both their homeland and the refugee camps of Bangladesh to seek protection and family reunification in Southeast Asia so long as conditions do not improve.

"While we do need regional and international approaches to address this phenomenon, the solution is not criminalising the Rohingya, who are victims of genocide and forced into prolonged displacement," she said.

Zafar is himself living in hiding in Malaysia after being accused of demanding citizenship for Rohingya refugees — an allegation he denies that nonetheless caused a stir on Malaysian social media.

"When Myanmar is peaceful, we would not want to stay in Malaysia any more, or even richer countries," Zafar said.

His sentiments were echoed by Rohingya activist Sharifah Shakirah, who founded the Rohingya Women Development Network in Kuala Lumpur before being resettled in the US in 2019.

Read Also
Myanmar army denies Rohingya genocide, says some individuals may have committed crimes
Myanmar army denies Rohingya genocide, says some individuals may have committed crimes

"That's our ultimate goal: once our country is peaceful, once Rohingya rights as citizens of the country are returned to us, we will go back, God-willing," Sharifah said.

Born in the township of Buthidaung in Myanmar's Rakhine State, Sharifah lived in Malaysia for more than two decades after she was smuggled into the country by traffickers at the age of five.

She said Rohingya would continue to put their lives in danger to reach Malaysia because they could not return to their homeland and the conditions at the refugee camps in Bangladesh had become "unliveable", but they "see some hope on the other side" of the sea.

Meanwhile, Malaysia continues to deny the UNHCR access to asylum seekers who have been languishing inside the country's immigration detention centres since 2019, making it difficult for the world body to ascertain their status or issue them with identification documents.

Conditions inside the centres led to more than 520 migrants breaking out of one in Penang earlier this year. Six of those who fled — including two children — were later killed attempting to cross a six-lane highway.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.