September 25, 2016
The Rohingya people are a group of Muslim minority from the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Since 1982, Myanmar has denied them citizenship and deprived them of their basic rights. This resulted in an increasing number of Rohingyas leaving Myanmar to make a life elsewhere. Malaysia is a popular choice given the large Muslim population, relatively high standard of living and developed economy.
One third of the 150,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia are Rohingyas. Although registration provides Rohingyas with an identification card and meagre benefits, it does not allow holders the right to work, health care or education. Registration is also not always viable for those living outside of the capital city Kuala Lumpur, where the office is located. Many do not make the journey, as they fear arrest or extortion as well as the difficulty of travel, communication and documentation. Advocacy groups claim the number of registered Rohingyas is in fact a small portion of a much larger unregistered body currently living in Malaysia.
Registered or not, a lack of protection and policy has left Rohingyas in a state of limbo in Malaysia. A report by the UNHCR describes Malaysia as a "country of asylum only in the loose sense of the term." Generally, Malaysia only provides basic rights to asylum seekers and does not provide resettlement. Rather, international governmental institutions, like UNHCR, transfer refugees to other countries for permanent resettlement.
While Rohingyas are often no longer at risk for deportation, they are subject to arrest, detention and extortion. They are also formally restricted from employment opportunities, and their children are unable to attend national schools.
Refugee or Illegal Migrant?
Malaysia is neither a signatory to the UN Convention of Refugees, nor does it have any intention of becoming so. Refugees or asylum seekers are treated the same as illegal migrants, who are accused of coming to Malaysia for economic opportunities. Refugees are restricted from integrating into Malaysian society or accessing fundamental services.
The lack of work opportunities forces many to take riskier forms of unofficial employment, putting them at the mercy of their employers. Rohingyas can be subject to late or non-payment of wages, dangerous working conditions and immigration raids. Without an income and with limited access to public services, fundamental rights like education, health and accommodation become unobtainable.
Many counties with the means to provide permanent resettlement are either handling other refugee populations or are unwilling to do so. Australia is generally opposed to taking in refugees. Much of Europe is overwhelmed with refugee populations, and North America is not conducive for foreigners or migrants. If Malaysia is waiting for the UNHCR to find countries accepting of the Rohingyas, they may be waiting a while.
Can Malaysia Handle This?
Therefore, what can be done? Refugee International calls on the Malaysian government to recognise the Rohingyas' asylum status, issue work permits, provide alternatives to detention and allow access to education and health care. While these seem like obvious and reasonable demands, the implementation is by no means simple.
Many Malaysians fear the provision of 'benefits' will encourage illegal migrants to seek asylum or continue to encourage irregular arrivals. Many countries possess similar fears, including the Australian Liberal Party's government, who argued for a 'strong' refugee policy.
Balancing the local labour's demands and the right of employment for asylum seekers will always be a difficult task. This is especially true in a country where wages, particularly in unskilled occupations, are fairly low. However, Malaysia already utilises an enormous amount of foreign labour in its construction, manufacturing and domestic services sectors. In 2015, the World Bank reported that Malaysia had 2.1 million legal foreign workers in the country. Most of these came from Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and the Philippines.
Thus, finding a way to utilise Rohingyas without encouraging illegal migration is the best way forward. On multiple occasions, the Malaysian Government has proposed this exact strategy, but plans have never come to fruition. Part of overcoming these challenges will be establishing a system to assess the status of asylum seekers.
Something needs to be done sooner rather than later. Rohingya children are being born in Malaysia to Malaysian-born Rohingya mothers. These second and third generation Malaysian-born Rohingyas are effectively stateless, as they are not eligible for residency or citizenship in Malaysia or Myanmar. This is strikingly similar to the plight of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Today, many third or fourth generation, second-country born Palestinians do not have permanent residency or citizenship in their country of birth, even if the original refugees were in fact economic migrants.
Citizenship and identity are two issues which will have to be further grappled with in the future. With every new Malaysian-born generation of Rohingyas, it becomes increasingly clear that they are no longer just 'Rohingyas' or Myanmarese.
Ultimately, this situation is a chance for Malaysia to prove its maturity as a nation and live up to its reputation as a tolerant country. Malaysia is in a prime position to take leadership of this issue and enhance its global credentials.