Rohingya refugees in Malaysia: Time for policy rethink

United States President Donald Trump's refugee ban had crushed the resettlement dreams of countless Rohingya refugees in Malaysia as the US is the largest resettlement country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 56,000 registered Rohingya card holders residing in Malaysia; other non-governmental organisations have estimated a total of 200,000 Rohingya refugees in the country.

While the Malaysian government has been active in promoting awareness about the Rohingya Muslims, domestically, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees continue to languish in poverty and lack rights in the society.

Despite the fiery protest rally in Kuala Lumpur in December last year and the allocation of US$2.2 million (S$3 million) humanitarian aid to the Rohingya in northern Myanmar, little action was undertaken by the government to help the Rohingya refugees within its borders.

What approaches can the Malaysian government consider to alleviate the plight of the refugees within its territory?


First, the Malaysian government must acknowledge that most Rohingya refugees are likely to stay permanently in the country. In fact, even before Mr Trump's refugee ban, resettlement rates had been low for Rohingya refugees. The perception of "temporary hosting" had caused the Malaysian government to make the least effort to grant the refugees working rights and proper access to health and education.

More often than not, ad hoc policies are adopted rather than long-term strategies. Thus, the community is eventually locked in a state of destitution.

A Rohingya protester reacting as others lined up after being arrested by Malaysian police in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. They were among more than 1,000 Rohingya protesting against the Myanmar government. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Second, the Malaysian government should grant legal recognition to the refugees. Without legal recognition, refugees will continue to be viewed as illegal migrants. For years, registered and non-registered refugees were arrested together with illegal migrants in massive dragnets by the Malaysian police. The local community has exhibited resentment towards the refugees who are considered illegal migrants.

Being a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its related 1967 Protocol should not be a reason for any country, including Malaysia, to deny lawful recognition for refugees. The 1951 convention, which was later amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee and the kind of legal protection, assistance and social rights he is entitled to. The convention also defines a refugee's obligation to host countries and the principle of "non-refoulement". According to this principle, host countries should not return a refugee to a country where he faces a serious threat to his life.

Indonesia signed a presidential decree in January this year which provided the definition of "refugee" based on the 1951 convention. The decree includes institutions that are obligated to manage refugees in Indonesia and reaffirms the availability of alternatives to detention for refugees with special needs and vulnerabilities.

Lastly, the Malaysian government should move towards granting basic rights and eliminating discrimination towards Rohingya refugees. In March, the government made a breakthrough by launching a pilot project, in collaboration with the UNHCR, which allowed Rohingya refugees to work legally in Malaysia with a temporary working permit. It was hoped that the project would be translated into something more meaningful, including better access to health services and education, and less discrimination in the society.

Despite government claims that the refugees are not interested in the programme as only 40 Rohingya registered, the Malaysian government did not do enough to identify the demography and needs of the refugees. The project allocated the refugees work in plantations and manufacturing sectors hidden in industrial areas and the countryside. Most of the Rohingya reside in urban centres such as Subang and Kuala Lumpur where they have established schools. Hence, employment opportunities need to be created in the cities instead of rural areas.


"Rohingya Muslims Cannot Wait" was a phrase used by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in his speech during the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Summit in January. The dire situation of Rohingya refugees must be resolved as soon as possible before the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) infiltrates the group. ISIS has a record of recruiting refugees by supplying basic necessities and money, which the host country failed to provide.

It was reported that ISIS had offered up to US$2,000 and supplied food to recruit from refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Rohingya refugees in Malaysia who have no rights, are ill-treated, feel unwelcome and desperate are ideal candidates for ISIS recruitment. In fact, according to Malaysian think-tank Iman Research, Malaysian militants had been recruiting Rohingya and dispatching them to the Philippines for training. Furthermore, if ISIS could offer a sense of belonging or identity, it was plausible that the Rohingya community, who longed for recognition, would join ISIS.

The Malaysian government has to act fast before the situation turns for the worse, especially on the issue of ISIS' infiltration. By implementing legal recognition and granting basic rights to the Rohingya community, the refugee issue in Malaysia could be resolved once and for all.

For the past decades, UNHCR and other related Malaysian and Rohingya community NGOs have organised and built mechanisms which Malaysia can rely on. The Malaysian government should further cooperate with these mechanisms to deal with issues such as health, accommodation and livelihood training. The pilot project by the Malaysian government this year is a positive sign of cooperation between the government and UNHCR. More such approaches in other areas could be taken to support the Rohingya community and help the people face the future.

•The writer is a research analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. She was previously a senior programme officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

•This article was first published in RSIS Commentary.

•SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline 'Rohingya refugees in Malaysia: Time for policy rethink'. Print Edition | Subscribe