A perilous journey: protection risks facing Rohingya en route to Malaysia

Despite tightening border controls and an ever hardening immigration stance, the movement of migrants and refugees bound for Malaysia, continues.[1] In particular, Rohingya, fleeing ongoing persecution in Myanmar and worsening conditions in the overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar, continue to brave perilous journeys across seas and over land in order to reach the relative safety and access to essential services that Malaysia affords.

Since January 2019, the Mixed Migration Centre Asia has been interviewing Rohingya in Malaysia via the 4Mi survey to better understand their migration experiences, journeys and aspirations. During this time, MMC has heard from hundreds of Rohingya refugees about the protection risks they face both during their journeys and upon arrival to Malaysia. With the large majority (78% of 142) of Rohingya interviewed in 2021 reporting that they had personally experienced some form of protection violation during their journey, the risks are extensive, widespread and cannot be ignored. Further, the global pandemic has only continued to make migration journeys more difficult, and compounded already existing risks.[2]

4Mi findings in this article come from 142 interviews conducted with Rohingya men (55%) and women (45%) between March and May 2021. More findings are shared in the MMC Asia 4Mi Snapshot – June 2021 Protection risks facing Rohingya refugees en route to Malaysia.

What are the risks

4Mi findings from 2021 show detention and physical violence to be the two most common risks reported by both Rohingya men and women en route to Malaysia. Besides these two risks, other risks reported include physical violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, death and robbery. When disaggregated by gender, women reported slightly greater risks of physical violence (49%), and significantly greater risks of sexual violence (36%), and kidnapping (28%), than men.[3]

No safe haven – where are protection risks occurring?

The risks facing Rohingya are prevalent throughout the region, starting with the ongoing persecution they face in their homeland, Myanmar. Risks continue to be prevalent for Rohingya throughout their journeys across the Asia region, including in the dangerous and overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar, along irregular journeys by sea and through countries such as Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, as well as upon arrival in destination countries such as Malaysia.[4] At the heart of the issue lies a systematic lack of legal protections for the stateless Rohingya throughout the region, as well as fundamental absence of durable solutions to the crisis.

Rohingya interviewed through 4Mi in Malaysia report that Thailand and Myanmar are the locations where protection violations were most likely to occur en route, with other less frequently cited locations reported in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. In Thailand, Ranong, Mae Hong Son and Pattani were cited as risk hotspots, along with Yangon in Myanmar, see the Map below.

Who are perpetrating these violations?

Without legal migration channels available, Rohingya rely on the assistance of smugglers to cross borders and provide travel documents, to get to countries such as Malaysia.[5] Consequently there is a sustained demand for smuggling activities with smugglers often adapting their routes, prices and business models in response to evolving border policies and law enforcement efforts that exist in the region.[6]

In absence of other options, the need for, and reliance on smugglers, has dire consequences for the protection of people on the move, including Rohingya, who are at heightened risk of falling prey to unscrupulous smugglers. Situations of aggravated smuggling and trafficking have been commonly reported along the routes to Malaysia, and have been tragically illuminated by discoveries of mass graves found in the jungle camps along the border of Myanmar and Thailand and the horrific stories which have emerged about the abuses occurring along maritime routes in the Andaman sea.[7]

Supporting this, the majority of Rohingya interviewed through 4Mi (66%) consider smugglers to be the main perpetrators of protection violations en route, with around half (56%) reporting that at some stage of their journey they had been intentionally misled by smugglers.

“When they [smugglers] saw that they could demand more money, they changed and asked us for double amount of payment. You had to fulfil their demand, or they would kill you. It was very difficult for me, but I was so scared of being killed by smugglers.”

26-year-old Rohingya man, interviewed in Johor, Malaysia

However, smugglers are not the only culprits with the abuse of refugees and migrants occurring in an environment of impunity, with the close involvement and collusion of state officials. With counter smuggling efforts focusing on prosecuting smugglers in isolation, the important role of state officials often remains insufficiently addressed.[8] Among Rohingya interviewed in Malaysia, military/police (30%) and border guards/immigration officers (29%) were the second and third most commonly cited perpetrators of protection risks en route to Malaysia.

More information is needed prior to migration

Despite the great risks present along the routes to Malaysia, many do not know the extent of these risks prior to embarking on their journeys. 4Mi findings show that a significant number of Rohingya (61%) report they would not have started their journey knowing what they know now. When Rohingya in Malaysia were asked what information would have been most useful to know prior to departure, most mentioned greater information about the conditions of the journey (57%), safety and security along the journey (56%), conditions in Malaysia (50%) and duration of the journey (49%).

“The journey was not like what the smuggler told me. You risked your lives the whole time and you can be dead anytime as well. I saw people dying of starvation.”

19-year-old Rohingya woman, interviewed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


  • Provide assistance for Rohingya refugees, especially women and children, during their journeys, including access to information, basic items such as food, water, and shelter, legal assistance, and psycho-social support.
  • Engage authorities in major transit countries, including Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia, to uphold legal and institutional frameworks which make accountable the perpetrators of protection violations, particularly smugglers and state officials.
  • Facilitate access to healthcare and psychological support for Rohingya women, men and children, especially those who are victims of sexual and physical violence.
  • Advocate for the regional prioritization of legal pathways for Rohingya refugees, including labor migration and family reunification, as well as refugee resettlement.

Key findings:

About MMC:

The Mixed Migration Centre is leading source of independent and high-quality data, research an analysis on mixed migration. The MMC aims to increase understandings of mixed migration, to positively impact global and regional migration policies, to inform evidence-based protection responses for people on the move and stimulate forward thinking in public and policy debates on mixed migration. The MMC’s overarching focus is on human rights and protection for all people on the move.

In Asia MMC’s 4Mi survey is currently conducted in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, with plans to expand to Turkey and Thailand in the coming year. For more information and access to our data please see 4Mi interactive or reach out to Jennifer.vallentine@mixedmigration.org

[1] See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-malaysia-idUSKBN23P1F7

[2] Since the pandemic 64% of people interviewed between March and May 2021 reported that migration has become more difficult during the pandemic. 27% also reported that COVID-19 has exacerbated already exiting risks en route.

[3] See https://mixedmigration.org/resource/4mi-snapshot-protection-risks-facing-rohingya-refugees-en-route-to-malaysia/

[4] See https://mixedmigration.org/resource/4mi-snapshot-protection-risks-faced-by-rohingya-and-bangladeshis-in-malaysia-amid-the-covid-19-crisis/   and https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/25/asia/rohingya-refugees-lost-at-sea-intl-hnk-dst/index.html

[5] 94% of people interviewed through 4Mi reported using smugglers, 44% used more than one smuggler for different parts of their journey. Among those who used smugglers (n=134), half cited they were engaged to assist with transit across borders (51%) and a third to provide documents (36%), see https://mixedmigration.org/resource/4mi-snapshot-protection-risks-facing-rohingya-refugees-en-route-to-malaysia/

[6] For more see MMC’s key messages on and definition of human smuggling https://mixedmigration.org/resource/smuggling-and-mixed-migration/

[7]  See https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/andaman-sea-crisis-5-years and https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/05/01/thailand-mass-graves-rohingya-found-trafficking-camp

[8] For more see MMC’s key messages on and definition of human smuggling https://mixedmigration.org/resource/smuggling-and-mixed-migration/