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It is quite possible to be both an asylum seeker and a criminal - especially if you are a Rohingya in Malaysia. One should not expect too much from a ‘host’ country. "Rohingya demonstrate to demand land in Malaysia … Look at these immigrants daring to ask for land!"  These words are displayed with the picture below. The screenshot comes from a video posted on Instagram at the end of last year by an internet user named saidatulmawardi2. It appeared on other accounts too and went viral.

People were probably supposed to feel indignant about the migrants’ demands - but the story is not true. The Rohingya protesters didn't ask for land. They were demonstrating against their own government, the government of Myanmar, and the protest took place more than 6 years ago. The original video was published by Kini TV on August 30, 2017 (the screenshot above appears at 1'17").

For decades Rohingya have been denied citizenship in their country of birth, Myanmar, where they have experienced discrimination and extreme violence from the military which has engaged a strategy of ethnic cleansing that involves killings, mass rapes, and burning thousands of homes. As Malaysia is a relatively close destination by sea, large numbers of Rohingya fled there to escape persecution in the 2010s. 

Their situation in Myanmar has worsened year after year and today they are being forcibly recruited into the army to serve as human shields for the Burmese junta. Because of the dire situation in their country, many Burmese people have also fled and continue to flee. So, notwithstanding the estimated 2 to 4 millions undocumented migrants (including Burmese) living in Malaysia, by the end of February 2024, nearly 90% of the 187,020 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia were from Myanmar. The majority are Rohingya.

At first they were welcomed, but then….

What happened when they reached Malaysia? At first they were welcomed. For instance in 2016 former Prime Minister Najib Razak (since involved in the huge 1MDB corruption scandal) was supportive of them, to the point of speaking of genocide against them in Myanmar. But the situation changed in 2020 with the pandemic. Life became difficult for many and, as elsewhere, a climate of uncertainty and anxiety spread through the Malaysian population. So migrants, foreign workers and asylum seekers, especially Rohingya, became scapegoats. A kind of rohingya-phobia took hold of the country and still remains, with a flow of anti-Rohingya posts and videos and some demonstrations by locals against them. Lilianne Fan, chair of the Rohingya Working Group in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, described the situation in November 2020: "When the boats started arriving, there was a sudden and very intense xenophobic campaign and anti-Rohingya rhetoric emerged on social media, including the spread of a lot of fake news about them." Why the Rohingya? Maybe because they are the largest group among asylum seekers, maybe because being stateless, they are the most vulnerable and an easy prey. 

Prime Minister Najib himself became hostile to the Rohingya. In April 2020 he declared “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile …We are not cruel, but when will we see an end to this problem which began in the 1990s?” The same month, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin stated that the Rohingya “have no status, rights or basis to make any claims on the [Malaysian] government”. He was right, the refugees have no rights in Malaysia because the country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its protocol. They are treated as illegal immigrants and can be arrested without distinction between adults, children and vulnerable people, especially if they have not been registered with the UNHCR. Nevertheless under customary international law which is binding on all states, a country may not oblige a person to return to a territory where he or she may be exposed to persecution. 

Malaysian authorities don't prioritise international principles and boats carrying Rohingya have often been forced back to sea. The fate of those overcrowded boats turned back by Malaysian (and sometimes Thai) authorities is generally unknown - probably dozens died because of lack of fresh water and food. Citing the pandemic as a reason, Malaysia declared that 22 boats crammed with Rohingya asylum seekers had been turned back by the Navy by the first semester of 2020. And in February 2021 1,086 undocumented Myanmar nationals - not Rohingya according to the authorities - were sent back, without consideration for a court order staying the deportation. Although the Malaysian government declared it would not deport Rohingya and refugees registered with the UNHCR, Asylum Access and Amnesty International reported at least three people registered with the UNHCR and 17 children with one or more parent in Malaysia were set to be deported. 

Let's go back to the hate speeches that have largely forged public attitudes towards asylum seekers, especially the Rohingya. They flooded social networks during the pandemic and grew stronger; they have been successful in arousing fear in the Malaysian population. In an article published last January, a lawyer called Norman Fernandez said, "With a high birth rate in recent years, Rohingya refugees will change the demographic landscape … [causing] our people to become a minority in our own country…. They are not persecuted refugees but economic refugees… In my opinion, the real mistake lies with the soft approach of the government and a handful of parties that welcomed their arrival in this country.” In the same article, the chairman of the Malaysian Community Care Foundation (MCCF) said, "Malaysia is too compromising on the issue of Rohingya refugees, allowing them to take advantage and commit crimes in this country. Most of them have bad behaviour, for example they have kept goats and cows in apartment flats. This has never happened in our society."

Caption: In 2020, a not so welcoming sign at the entrance of a mosque in Plentong Bahru (Johor) 
(Photo from DOAM - Documenting Oppression Against Muslims)

"We do not welcome Rohingya.” These were the words displayed on a banner in 2020 at the entrance of a mosque in Plentong Bahru village (Johor). More recently, last September, when a man groping a girl in a supermarket was caught by CCTV, the video went viral, with the obvious explanation: the culprit was thought to be a Rohingya. Eventually, he was discovered to be a Bangladeshi … better, but still a foreigner. Here are some of the comments displayed with the video: "hope that the leaders and government departments will drive foreigners from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Rohingya out of our country;” "Rohingya should be punished. I don't like foreigners;” ”What other evidence does the government want? [Why tolerate] tribes that always cause problems?  Murders, rapes, obscenities, dealing in drugs, prostitution and various other crimes are committed by foreigners … the refugees and Rohingya " 

Nasim*, a Rohingya refugee explains: "It's a minority of Malaysian citizens who are hostile, but they are very active and efficient at destroying our image. Opposition to the government is behind the hate campaign.  Rohingya are targeted.”

 Abul* who belongs to a Rohingya solidarity association says, "Hate speeches are common: they say we create problems, we take their jobs. Some of us chew betel and then spit it out; it's used as a tool to show how dirty we are."

"I live in an open prison"

Rohingya in Malaysia live in a very precarious situation. Under the pretext of national security and sovereignty, life is made unsafe for them. State policy towards them is often inconsistent; for instance 10 years ago a previous government announced that it would allow them to work without fear of arrest. It never happened and just a few weeks ago the Home Minister made a similar announcement without results. 

Without any ID from their country, registered or not with the UNHCR - the process takes time - they are not allowed to work. So, just to survive they moonlight and run the risk of being arrested and detained. The refugees toiling at construction sites often complain of being extorted by law enforcement officers because they don’t have permits. Despite discounted health care because of their low income or no income status, they often cannot pay their medical bills. A long time refugee close to the Rohingya community testified in Frontier Myanmar, an independent magazine: “Some of the hospital administrators, if the person is unregistered they will report them to immigration… and some young mothers were sent to detention centres almost immediately after giving birth.”  Education is a problem too. As their parents are stateless, Rohingya children born in Malaysia have no right to Malaysian nationality and are therefore denied access to public schools. According to a UNHCR source, some 40% have access to basic education in learning centres funded by NGOs - but these are underfunded and in need of qualified teachers. Tuition is cheap but sometimes parents have no money at all. It's not a sustainable solution. 

Fear is widespread among Rohingya refugees. Everyone Prachatai talked to, whatever their condition, asked that their names not to be mentioned and their pictures not be publicised. 

A Rohingya refugee in Malaysia (Photo from Overseas Development Institute)

Kiaw* who drives one of his company's vehicles explains how tough things can be: “We have to work in order to survive, and often to do so we need to drive a car or a motorcycle. But as we don't have an ID we cannot pass a driving test (in Mynamar it was the same). When the police stop us, they sometimes let us go because they know our situation is difficult.”

So does Lang Kat*, a father of two: “We worry about our children, after attending learning centres, they cannot follow their studies further.”

And Mohib* who has been in Malaysia since 1996: “It got bad in 2020 and it's worse now. Currently raids by the police are more frequent.”

And, so too, Tansima*, a woman in her 20's: “I was born in Malaysia but I don't have the nationality. I have seen a lot of change and hate speeches on social media, but [at least there has been] no change in neighbourhood attitudes.”

As Maung* who has lived in Malaysia for more than 15 years and has a UNHCR refugee card tells it: "I live in an open prison, we don't have any freedom, the authorities do what they like," 

The Malaysian Constitution recognises the right to form an association, but it limits this to Malaysian citizens and the government often resists registering organisations that it dislikes for whatever reason. So regardless of their politics, Rohingya are not in a position to elect representatives and enter into discuss with the authorities.

Refugees can be arrested and placed in detention centres (sometimes despite being registered with UNHCR). In Peninsular Malaysia, Rohingya account for 21% of 13,000 detainees, including more than 1400 children in 12 immigration detention centers in 2024. Journalists are forbidden to visit those camps. Red Cross officials are allowed inside but not permitted to testify about what they see. The centres may well be worse than regular prisons. Inmates live in squalid condition. Based on interviews with former detainees, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive report on those detention centres in March under the title "We can't see the sun.”  The Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail responded by describing the report as irresponsible. 

Indefinite detention

Imran* has been detained in one of these centres.  He reached Malaysia in 2015. He was arrested by the police for illegal entry and sentenced to 5 months in jail. The day he was supposed to regain his freedom, he was rearrested because he was undocumented and sent to an immigration detention centre. After 8 months, UNHCR provided him with an ID card and eventually he was released.  What he experienced was consistent with the HRW report. 

Since August 2019 UNHCR has not been allowed access to the camps. The Home Minister stated last February that he had no qualms about granting them access but never did. As a result the organisation cannot meet with asylum seekers detained there to provide them with the UNHCR identity card necessary for their release. So, Rohingya and other undocumented migrants are locked in camps for an indefinite period of time, without legal recourse. Some have been detained years without any chance of release. Under such conditions, many feel hopeless. Some have rioted.  Others have tried to escape. On April 20, 2022, riots broke out in a temporary immigration detention camp in Sungai Bakap, near Penang, and 582 Rohingya refugees escaped; 362  were rearrested in the next few days. 6 were killed when trying to cross a highway. Eventually the camp was closed on March 31, 2023. More recently, on 1 February 2024, 129 prisoners escaped from the Bidor Temporary Immigration Detention Depot in Perak.  Most were recaptured the next day. 

In this context, undocumented asylum seekers in Malaysia often live in fear. This situation is counterproductive for both the refugees and for Malaysia, which spends money to run detention centres, depriving the country of much-needed manpower.


Meeting with a group of Rohingya refugees in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Photo by Patrice Victor)

Some support for the refugees has come from different segments of Malaysian society.  Civil society organisations and religious leaders have denounced the detention camps and the ban on letting refugees work. In April 2022, the president of the Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations of Malaysia (Mapim) remarked: "It is unfortunate when children and women are forced to be in detention that is not conducive to life, even for basic needs… Not only does an investigation into why the riot happened need to be carried out, but the treatment at the detention depot itself needs to be carefully examined.” He urged the government to immediately solve the problem of Rohingya detainees at the depot…"It is unreasonable for some of those who already have a UNHCR card and who do not have documents to be detained for such a long time without access to the legal process.” Questioned by Prachatai, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) stated that "The UNHCR should be granted access to conduct interviews to determine the status of these detainees. A proper process should be in place to ensure people fleeing from their countries because of persecution, war or violence are given access to reach UNHCR." The organisation "hopes that there will be a proper mechanism in place to allow refugees to work in order to sustain their lives while they in this country." 

 Nonetheless, Malay public perceptions of Rohingya and other asylum seekers remain negative.   If less intense, public opinion is also hostile towards the large number of foreign workers coming from Nepal, Bangladesh or Indonesia. Dhia, a Malaysian who lives in Kuala Lumpur, stresses: "Most security guards in condominiums are foreigners. The way most people look upon them, speak to them, their attitudes towards them suggest they consider those workers as second-class human beings."

Pointing fingers exclusively at Malaysia for the way it deals with foreign workers and asylum seekers would be misleading.  Elsewhere, politicians also instrumentalise foreigners and asylum seekers to increase the sense of ‘threat’ posed by refugees and migrants, attack governments, and posture as saviours able to deal with the "immigrant invasion.” In Indonesia, Rohingya were the target of violence at the end of last year, and in Thailand the situation is not much better. Hostility against asylum seekers is in no way limited to SE Asia either.  To some degree, migrants and asylum seekers are increasingly unpopular, no matter which host country, rich or poor. In Libya they have been tortured or sold as slaves.  In Tunisia, the President himself uses racist language against migrants from sub-Saharan countries.  In the USA and the European Union, immigration is seen as a threat by a significant portion of the population. Considering what happens in so many different countries, fear of the Other, thinking in terms of "Us" and "Them" seems to be a global trend.

* Name has been changed.

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