Rohingya risk their lives to flee to Malaysia

Ms Sawmira, 19, caressing her baby while a neighbour's child looks on. The Rohingya teenager was flown into Malaysia via Bangladesh last year using a fake passport, to marry a man she had never met. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak posing for pi
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak posing for pictures ahead of the deployment of humanitarian aid for Rohingya refugees to Chittagong in Bangladesh, at Subang Air Force base last month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Ms Sawmira, 19, caressing her baby while a neighbour's child looks on. The Rohingya teenager was flown into Malaysia via Bangladesh last year using a fake passport, to marry a man she had never met. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak posing for pi
Ms Sawmira, 19, caressing her baby while a neighbour's child looks on. The Rohingya teenager was flown into Malaysia via Bangladesh last year using a fake passport, to marry a man she had never met.ST PHOTO: TRINNA LEONG

But they have no legal rights in country and risk being arrested

It was after sunset when Subahan Nurul Haq began the treacherous journey to flee his Myanmar hometown for Malaysia. This was in June last year, when the weather was hot and sticky, but it was the least of the 13-year-old's concerns.

As Subahan left his village located in the south of Rakhine state, violence had erupted. A single bullet passed his left ear and hit the boy running next to him. There was no time to pause, and Subahan ran as fast as he could into the jungle and followed a human trafficker on a 25-day journey on foot, by boat and car to Kuala Lumpur.

He started the trip with a group of 14 people, but the numbers had fallen to six by the time they reached Bangkok. Some perished from gunshot wounds, several others could not survive the perilous hike through the mountains with insufficient food.

"If I stay on in my village, I will die. I may as well try to flee," he told The Straits Times.

Subahan is alone in Malaysia - without his immediate family or other relatives.

More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled their homes for next-door Bangladesh in recent weeks in the latest round of sectarian violence.

  • Rohingya refugees in Malaysia

  • • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said as of end-August, there are about 61,000 Rohingya registered with the agency. It estimates there are 40,000 unregistered Rohingya in Peninsula Malaysia.

    • Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and thus it does not have a legal framework on asylum issues.

    • The Rohingya say priority for refugees goes to those who are ill and/or are housed in immigration detention centres.

    • Most Rohingya do odd jobs as construction labourers, scrap metal collectors and market workers, among other informal work.

    • The Rohingya language is spoken by some two million native speakers worldwide and is similar to the Bengali and Chittagonian languages spoken in Bangladesh.

    • The latest round of sectarian violence by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) on Aug 25, involving attacks on police posts in Rakhine, has led to concern over its supporters in Malaysia. Counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said the police are looking to see if Arsa has fighters among the refugees.

Malaysia last saw a massive influx of Rohingya refugees in 2015, when boats carrying over a thousand of them were abandoned by human traffickers and left afloat near the northern strip of the Strait of Malacca. Since then, boats carrying refugees have stopped arriving, but the violence in Rakhine state has not dissipated.

Dozens of Rohingya have arrived in Malaysia every month in the past two years, most of them boys who were alone and had travelled by land, according to Mr Rafik Ismail, a Rohingya who runs a refugee community centre in Kuala Lumpur.

"Teenage boys are the most vulnerable now to getting killed. They're targeted by the military," said Mr Rafik. "They have to run. It's not a choice".

Malaysia's maritime agency last month said that the authorities would not turn away boats carrying Rohingya refugees. But many Rohingya in Malaysia say they have not heard of boats arriving since the 2015 boat crisis.

For many in the 100,000-strong Rohingya community in Malaysia, their overriding concern is surviving without getting locked up by the authorities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia reports that as of end-August, there were about 61,000 Rohingya registered with the agency. It estimates that 40,000 unregistered Rohingya are living all over Peninsula Malaysia.

The community forms the largest group of refugees in Malaysia, while the country is also host to over 140,000 Myanmar nationals holding work permits.

Rohingya living in Kuala Lumpur said it has become increasingly difficult to get a UNHCR refugee card, with the wait stretching several years. The refugee agency cites "backlogs in all areas, including registration" in its 2016 year-end report as one of the problems it faces.

TAKING A CHANCE

If I stay on in my village, I will die. I may as well try to flee.

SUBAHAN NURUL HAQ, a 13-year-old who made the treacherous journey from his Rakhine village to Malaysia last year.

"UNHCR gives priority to those with acute vulnerabilities, including but not solely, those in immigration detention centres and those with physical or other disabilities," UNHCR Malaysia told The Straits Times.

Since Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, there is no legal framework on asylum issues.

Thus, there is no distinction between a refugee and an undocumented migrant.

Refugees in the country are without legal rights. They cannot work, have no access to healthcare and education, and are vulnerable to arrests by the authorities as illegal migrants.

Most do odd jobs at construction sites, collecting scrap metal or working in markets. They quickly pick up Bahasa Malaysia, and only speak the Rohingya language with their own people.

Their language, spoken by some two million people worldwide, is similar to Bengali and Chittagonian languages spoken in Bangladesh.

The Malaysian government announced a pilot programme that begun in March to provide 300 Rohingya refugees with UNHCR cards, and jobs in the manufacturing and plantations sector. It is seen as the first step to allow them to work legally, as the government has urged Myanmar to cease the violence and announce solidarity with the minority group.

Not all Rohingya fled their oppression by sea or by land. Some were flown into Malaysia via Bangladesh.

Ms Sawmira, 19, took her first plane ride last year. Her village, just hours away from the Bangladesh border, was affected by the violence. In January last year, her father arranged a marriage for her with a Rohingya man in Kuala Lumpur. Her husband-to-be paid almost RM20,000 (S$6,400) for Ms Sawmira's safe passage to Malaysia by airplane.

Using a fake passport, she was accompanied by an unknown man who placed her in a taxi bound for her future husband's home. Her passport was given to her only they approached immigration at the two airports and taken away as soon as she exited Kuala Lumpur's airport.

Carrying her one-month old baby girl, the teenager could not describe her feelings at having boarded a plane for the very first time. "I forgot everything when I came here," she said, blank-faced.

The Rohingya community said there are at least two dozen people who have arrived via the air route, and most were young brides.

• Additional reporting by Nadirah H. Rodzi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Rohingya risk their lives to flee to Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe