The Rohingya are a stateless people and one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, but their struggle has been largely forgotten.
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is calling for Australians to #VoteForHumanity in May 2022 and to ask our leaders to address their plight.
More than 900,000 Rohingya people have been displaced from Myanmar due to decades-long violent and targeted campaigns led by the Myanmar military.
In 2017, an escalation in this violence forced around 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where many remain five years on, now forming the world’s largest refugee camp.
Many others have sought shelter in other parts of the region, including in Malaysia.
Life-or-death experiences to reach safety
Rohingya people have been risking dangerous journeys across the Andaman Sea to reach Malaysia, fleeing violence and persecution, for the past 30 years. Because the Rohingya are stateless and continue to be denied citizenship in Myanmar, they lack protection from their country of origin and the necessary documents to enter other countries.
“Rather than face death or inhumane torture, the majority of us choose to leave by sea,” one man told MSF. “The voyage to Malaysia is always perilous, it is a life-or-death experience.”
Refugees now in Malaysia say that Rohingya are subjected to violence and abuse from smugglers during these sea journeys, which can take months. They report not being given enough food and water for the crossing, with some people running out of food supplies weeks before reaching their destination.
One refugee who spoke with MSF said some people became malnourished or even died before reaching their destination.
“All my wishes and chances are dwindling”
In Malaysia, Rohingya refugees are denied legal status as the country has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its subsequent protocols. Refugees are not protected by domestic law and are effectively criminalised.
Refugees can register with the UNHCR, but they don’t receive much assistance, cannot legally work and face limited access to education, healthcare and other services. To feed themselves and their families, many end up in the Malaysian informal sector carrying out dangerous, dirty and difficult jobs with high risks of exploitation.
The resettlement process in Malaysia is lengthy and limited. Some people wait up to 10 to 30 years to even begin it, and not all refugees are resettled, leaving many with an uncertain future. Several refugees told MSF that they know families of three generations living in Malaysia, waiting for resettlement.
“Malaysia treats refugees as illegal migrants, denying their basic rights,” says Nurul*, a 27-year-old Rohingya man who has been living in limbo in Malaysia for 10 years.
“Over the last two years, there has been a rise of xenophobia against refugee communities, especially the Rohingya community. We have been living in fear of our uncertain future, constantly wondering what we will do if the Malaysian government sends us back to Myanmar, which we fled to save our lives.
“As a single person, I can only say that I’m growing older, feeling as if all of my wishes and chances are dwindling and I have no control over them.”
Resettlement necessary to rebuild lives
Asked how important resettlement is for him, Nurul says, “I’ll say it’s urgent; otherwise, our lives will be hopeless. Hope is what keeps us alive. Resettlement in a country means that we can begin from the start, and in my opinion, one can begin living as a human with basic rights that are certain.”
“Resettlement would give us an opportunity to rebuild our lives in a country that gives us basic human rights, including education for our children,” says Mohib*, 36.
“Refugees can contribute to the community they are placed in. Resettlement means getting the refugees out of the darkness and in a place full of light.”
At a time when global refugee numbers are growing by a million each year, the Australian government decreased its refugee settlement quota from approximately 18,000 to 13,750 in 2021 and now ranks 26th in terms of overall intake. Australia’s aid budget has shrunk by $144 million in 2021-22.
In Malaysia, MSF provides primary healthcare, referrals for secondary and tertiary healthcare and mental health support to Rohingya people and other refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, who are effectively excluded from protection, work, healthcare and other social services. We also provide comprehensive medical services in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees continue to face extremely poor living conditions and the inability to work, engage in education or meet their basic needs.
*Names have been changed.