Surviving Fear and Uncertainty: Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia

“I sometimes dream of going back to Rakhine state when the situation gets better, only if there were no more killings, no persecution, no displacement, and only if I could live like other ethnic groups in Myanmar.”

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

“I hope that there will be safety for Rohingya people so that we can live with dignity and basic rights in Rakhine state. For now, I cannot go back.”

28-year-old Rohingya man, interviewed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

It has been more than three years since Rohingya refugees fled en masse from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, escaping military-led violence, rape, and killings, as well as the widespread destruction and repossession of property. While the ongoing conflict in Myanmar continues to pose threats to the safety of around 600,000 Rohingya left in Rakhine state, the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face worsening conditions and increasing instability. In the latest move to spark international concern, Bangladeshi authorities relocated 3,000 Rohingya to the unstable and remote island of Bhasan Char in December, isolating them from family, the community as well as humanitarian support and oversight. With no durable solutions in sight, many Rohingya refugees see no other option than to embark on risky onwards journeys from Bangladesh, mainly by sea, in search of greater safety, access to services, reunification with family and livelihood opportunities throughout the region.

The increasing reluctance of states in the region to allow entry to Rohingya arriving by boat has only added to the dangers of those making the journey. As many as 1,400 Rohingya were stranded at sea in the first half of 2020, sometimes for weeks or months, in a state of a protracted humanitarian crisis, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by smugglers. By July 2020, it was estimated that at least 130 lives had been lost. The situation echoes the Andaman Sea Crisis in 2015, and reinforces the urgent need for regional frameworks facilitating responsibility sharing between states and ensuring safe disembarkation and adherence to non-refoulement principles.

For many embarking on secondary movements, Malaysia is their intended destination with the country currently hosting more than 150,000 UNHCR registered Rohingya refugees, 75% of whom live in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and its surrounding states of Selangor, Pulau Pinang, and Johor. While Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has historically offered relative safety and stability for refugees fleeing persecution in the region, including the Muslim majority Rohingya. Malaysia offers better healthcare and education services, as well as an abundance of employment opportunities, compared to Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, despite these opportunities, Rohingya refugees are offered limited legal protections and are considered ‘illegal migrants’ under Malaysian law, exposing them to multiple risks and compounding existing vulnerabilities further.

The opportunities and challenges facing Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, along with other refugee and migrant populations, are highlighted in the MMC-Asia’s Kuala Lumpur Urban Case Study, launched in November 2020. Complementing MMC’s global annual Mixed Migration Review 2020 focusing on the role of cities in human mobility, the case study draws on primary data from 101 4Mi surveys, together with 6 in-depth interviews conducted with refugees and migrants about their experiences in KL. The study has been released against the backdrop of COVID-19 which has acted as a risk and threat-multiplier in the region. It highlights the rising anti-Rohingya sentiment in Malaysia, fueling nation-wide immigration crackdowns significantly impacting the Rohingya community as well as other refugee and migrant groups in the country.

While the Malaysian government initially responded to the pandemic with positive measures such as free testing for Rohingya refugees in Selayang, the situation has progressively deteriorated. Since May 2020, government rhetoric and public discourse has increasingly portrayed refugees and migrants as a source of virus transmission, fueling discrimination and hate speech, and underpinning the arrest, detention, and deportation of thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees. As highlighted in MMC’s study, nearly half of Rohingya interviewed through 4Mi (n=78) reported rising xenophobia in the face of the pandemic, with over three quarters reporting an increased risk of arbitrary detention.

“I heard about the hate campaigns against us. It made me feel depressed. We already faced xenophobia and discrimination in Rakhine state and that’s why we left our country. We expected it to be better here, but many local Malaysians don’t accept migrants, especially Rohingya people.”

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

Meanwhile, the temporary closure of key migrant industries as well as the informal sector in Malaysia due to COVID-19 has resulted in widespread job loss and increasing destitution for many migrant workers and refugees. According to the majority of Rohingya interviewed via 4Mi, loss of income amid the pandemic has resulted in the inability to afford basic goods, loss of housing and increased worry and stress.

“We haven’t paid our rent for so many months. If it continues, the landlord will drive us out. We also cannot send any money back home. But I know a lot of people are also in our situation.”

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

Thus while Malaysia has offered many Rohingya relative safety and security, the systemic lack of legal protection frameworks poses great risk and heightened vulnerabilities, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. MMC-Asia’s Kuala Lumpur Urban Case Study puts forward a list of key recommendations, including to enshrine legal protections for refugees, implement the objectives and actions of the Global Compact for Migration, adopted by Malaysia, include refugees and migrants in the center of COVID-19 response plans, and ensure humane border management whilst upholding people’s rights to seek asylum.

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