Once one of the countries most supportive of the Rohingya, Malaysia has become increasingly hostile to the persecuted group, leaving many fearful of arrest and struggling to work or attend schools.
When Amir* escaped from a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh by boat in 2015, he was abandoned by human traffickers in the open ocean on the way to Malaysia.
“We lost about 300 people because we ran out of food and were just floating in the middle of nowhere,” he recalled. He said some people, delirious with dehydration, began breaking holes into the bottom of the boat to drink salt water.
“They didn’t even have the energy to come up to the top floor.”
As the ship took on water and began to sink, hundreds died because they didn’t know how to swim, until Indonesian fishermen from the province of Aceh rescued Amir and the other survivors.
“There was a huge welcome from the host community, they brought whatever they could, medicine, food, water. People who were very sick were sent to the hospital, they even set up medical tents in the refugee camps to give emergency care,” he said.
Despite this warm reception, Amir still pushed onwards to Kuala Lumpur after a year in Aceh. “The intention from the beginning was to come to Malaysia,” he said.
When asked if he regrets the decision now, Amir shrugged: “When you’re a refugee, you’re a refugee.”
In 2017, the Myanmar military launched a violent crackdown on the Rohingya population, killing thousands of civilians and sending more than 750,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. There they joined around 250,000 fellow Rohingya refugees who had fled previous military purges, including Amir’s family, which was already in Bangladesh. The United Nations described the crackdown as “textbook ethnic cleansing” while the United States has since labeled it a genocide.
Attitudes towards the Rohingya have shifted in Malaysia over the years, with sympathy peaking around 2016 or 2017, but descending into a frenzy of suspicion and racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rahmat Abdul Karim, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia, said the community faces many challenges in Kuala Lumpur, from accessing healthcare and education to employment and other obstacles.
He said refugees receive discounts at hospitals if they are registered with the UN refugee agency, but this process is “very long and very slow”, leaving many with impossibly huge medical bills.
“Some of the hospital administrators, if the person is unregistered they will report them to immigration,” he said, adding that he knows of young mothers who were sent to detention centres almost immediately after giving birth.
Thousands of Rohingya have been arrested in Malaysia for entering the country illegally, facing indefinite detention because they can’t be deported back to Myanmar, which has long refused to grant citizenship to the Muslim minority group.
Rahmat said there are similar risks when it comes to employment, and the Rohingya must be ready to pay extortion money to local authorities for working without a permit.
“People are all working but we don’t have any work permits, so it’s all based on luck. There’s no formal contract. If a person is working and he gets injured, he won’t get any compensation,” he added.
Daw Rose*, a 48-year-old mother from Sittwe, came to Malaysia 28 years ago and has navigated this precarious landscape for many years.
“Living in Sittwe, we faced many hardships, such as discrimination, not being allowed to travel freely, just like other Rohingya,” she said. She came to Kuala Lumpur with her husband, with whom she had six children, but he died of heart disease last year.
Today she has a UNHCR card, allowing her to legally work as a domestic helper, but she said she is still mostly employed informally without a contact, leaving her with no job security as she works to support her entire family.
Hate speech and politics
Rohingya refugees like Daw Rose fled Myanmar to escape increasingly harsh oppression. Even before the surge in violence, Rohingya were denied citizenship, making it difficult to access public services like education and healthcare. They had their freedom of movement severely restricted and were denied the right to vote – conditions Amnesty International described as apartheid.
The 2017 crackdown was widely condemned globally, including in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but was broadly supported domestically, where even members of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement defended the military. But today, Rahmat feels Malaysian society has also become increasingly hostile to Rohingya refugees.
“We are just surviving on our own,” he said. “During covid, there was a lot of hate speech and media campaigns against migrants and refugees,” he added, which included sharing pictures of Rohingya children begging in public.
“They are saying things like, ‘why aren’t they detained and sent to their home countries?’ Previously it was not like that,” Rahmat said, adding that it seems partially an attempt to “divert from internal issues”.
As part of the crackdown, in 2020 the Malaysian home minister said any organisation representing the Rohingya is “illegal” and Rohingya refugees have “no status, rights or basis to make any claims on the government”.
Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said it wasn’t always this way.
“At one time, under the former prime minister, it was a lovey-dovey arrangement,” he said, adding the Rohingya had almost as much public support as Palestinians, who are “sacred” to Malaysians.
That former prime minister was Najib Razak, who has since been jailed for his involvement in the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal. In 2016 and 2017, he emerged as a stalwart champion of the Rohingya and a fierce critic of the Myanmar government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But Najib’s detractors warned at the time that it was just a self-serving stunt meant to distract from the mounting corruption allegations.
“In the last few years, it’s turned negative,” Santiago said, agreeing that there was an “organised effort” to demonise the Rohingya.
The search for education
When Rahmat first came to Malaysia in 2010, he did so to pursue higher education. While he has always dreamed of becoming a doctor, his stateless status has thrown up barriers everywhere he goes.
“I was born in Myanmar, in Maungdaw in Arakan in 1978,” he said. “My father was a schoolteacher, but because of a lot of political problems, we moved to Saudi Arabia… We travelled to Bangladesh, to Pakistan and from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia,” he said.
However, when it came time for his secondary education in Saudi Arabia, Rahmat was denied entry to high school because he was a foreigner. He returned to Pakistan, where he studied at an international school.
“But Pakistan did not allow foreigners to study at university,” he said, so he came to Malaysia for university.
“I wanted to study one year here and another year in Australia, but when I went to the [Australian] embassy they wanted proof that I had $100,000 to show I can support myself, but I couldn’t show this, so I’m still here,” he said.
Rohingya refugee children in Malaysia also face obstacles accessing education, raising questions about the education of the future generation.
“The children are doing their best to learn,” Rahmat said, but claimed Malaysian authorities are hostile to providing education. “They think, ‘Why do we need to build a school for refugees or migrants, you are here only for a temporary period, we won’t allow you to stay here for a long time,’” he explained.
The same situation is occurring in Bangladesh, where authorities are imposing increasingly harsh restrictions on refugees in an apparent attempt to push them to return to Myanmar.
Rohingya people living in Kuala Lumpur have instead relied on community learning centres and religious schools. “But if you don’t live near a learning centre you just stay at home,” Rahmat said.
Daw Rose’s six children are aged between six and 28, and the restrictions on education are increasingly convincing her to try to leave Malaysia.
“Children can’t receive a formal education in Malaysia,” she said. “They can only study in religious schools or schools opened by the UN for refugees.”
She said when her husband was alive, he ran a religious school and worked on Rohingya social issues, so he felt obligated to stay and support the Rohingya community in Malaysia.
“But when my husband passed away, the responsibility for my children’s future fell on me. My third son is now in high school and has told me he wants to go to college,” she said.
Amir said some children manage to attend government schools all the way through secondary education but are not allowed to take government matriculation exams. “There are some community centres where you can send your children for education, but there are only a few doing secondary education and for higher education there are none,” he said.
Amir called for support from the international community, urging them to help train teachers and develop curricula for Rohingya children abroad.
“Especially because then if we manage to go back [to Rakhine] we have trained teachers,” he said.
Dreams of home
For now, the prospect of returning to Rakhine remains a pipe dream. The same military that allegedly committed genocide against the Rohingya is back in the halls of power in Nay Pyi Taw. Meanwhile, the war between the military and the Arakan Army is roaring back to life after a nearly two-year ceasefire in 2020, making Rakhine a dangerous place to return to.
This leaves the refugees in Malaysia and elsewhere stuck in limbo.
“I feel I am lost here,” Rahmat said. “I was born in Myanmar, I grew up in Saudi Arabia, I came here… my sister, brothers and my parents are in Saudi Arabia, but I can’t visit them there because I don’t have any travel documents. So, I’m just floating around,” he said.
Rahmat said he feels the Rohingya are back to where they were 10 years ago – watching Myanmar politics play out from afar and hoping this time the pro-democracy forces will accept them.
“When Aung San Suu Kyi was in prison, we were just praying for her to get released because we hoped that she would establish a parliament and raise our issues there,” he said, referring to her detention under the previous military regime.
But Rahmat said the Rohingya community was left crestfallen when the NLD was allowed to contest the 2015 election and controversially failed to field a single Muslim candidate. After winning that election in a landslide, he said the NLD and its supporters did not champion the Rohingya cause as he hoped, but sided with the military against them.
“They tell us we have to go to Bangladesh, but our homes are in Maungdaw and Buthidaung. We have lived there from generation to generation. So, if we go to Bangladesh, again we are foreigners there… if we go to Bangladesh, Bangladesh people will not welcome us as they say we are from the other side,” he said.
Since the NLD was overthrown in a coup, and Aung San Suu Kyi once again taken into military custody, Rahmat now finds himself in a familiar position – rooting for the very people who ignored his plight.
The lawmakers elected in the 2020 polls have appointed a rival administration known as the National Unity Government, which has sharply deviated from NLD policy on the Rohingya, pledging to grant citizenships and other rights. The policies are giving new hope to the community.
For some like Daw Rose, who has set her sights on permanent resettlement, it’s too late.
“We remember and miss Myanmar very much,” she said. “I am sure there is no one who doesn’t miss their country. But I would only go back for a visit. I don’t want to face the discrimination and humiliation that I experienced before.”
But like Rahmat, Amir still dreams of going home.
“I’ve never been to my country, but when I was little, living in the refugee camp, my father used to take me to the top of a mountain and show me, that’s where your hometown is,” Amir recalled. “There’s always a desire to go back to your country.”
*Denotes the use of a pseudonym upon request