Who are the Rohingya?

Described by the BBC as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya are a group of stateless Muslim people with their own language. They mostly populate the northern Myanmar state of Rakhine and the surrounding regions. The total Rohingya population residing within Myanmar as of 2013 is estimated to be about 735,000, while almost 1 million of them are living outside of Myanmar’s borders.

Why are many trying to leave Myanmar?

The Rohingya people are not officially recognized by the Myanmar government. In 1982, 135 ethnic groups were given full citizenship but the Rohingya were not as the government considers them illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. However, they are also not recognised by Bangladesh.

Unable to apply for citizenship, work, marry and travel without proper documentation, many have been stuck in a place where living conditions are extremely poor. A nationalist movement known as 969 sees the Rohingya as a threat to the Buddhist majority. The conflict between Burmese military, Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya erupted in 2012. Hundreds were left dead and 140,000 people displaced. Fear of violence has compelled many Rohingya people to seek asylum elsewhere.

What countries have they fled to?

Surprisingly, an estimated population of 400,000 Rohingya reside within Saudi Arabia. The late King Faisal, who ruled from the mid 1960s up until his assassination in 1975, offered a “safe haven” in which these refugees could live peacefully. Unfortunately, following his passing, the overtaking authority caused a shift in attitudes towards these refugees. Guardian reporter, Syed Neaz Ahmad estimated about 3,000 Rohingya families were awaiting deportation in prisons across Jeddah and Mecca in 2009.

The Rohingya also populate the neighboring countries surrounding Myanmar such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan and more recently Malaysia, many of which were smuggled in illegally by boat. An estimated population of 300,000 Rohingya, mostly confined to the Chittagong region, live in Bangladesh. Another 200,000 reside in Pakistan and 100,000 more in Thailand. Malaysia makes up the smallest population of displaced Rohingya. The UNHCR estimates the figure at over 40,000 Rohingya refugees.

Have there been improvements in the living conditions of Rohingya residing outside of Myanmar?

Many of those who emigrated from Myanmar to Bangladesh have seen very little improvement in their situations. People have spent years confined to refugee camps and unable to receive citizenship and thus jobs. In Malaysia, refugees are not recognised as such. Those who have been registered by the UNHCR can often only work in the informal sector.

Why are more refugees arriving in Malaysia now?

Earlier this month, a mass grave was found near the border of Malaysia, thought to contain the bodies of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who had been held by human traffickers in a camp, then left to die. Due to a crackdown from Thai authorities on human trafficking, more refugees have been arriving in Malaysia since.

How has Malaysia reacted to the arrival of Rohingya people?

Earlier this week, over 1000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis arrived in Langkawi by boat. So far, Malaysia’s Home Ministry has been in favour of turning away these boats full of people. However, lawyers have argued that because Malaysia signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Malaysia should be bound by international law not to deport them.

Update: According to the Malay Mail Online, one boat was prevented from entering Langkawi and another boat was pushed away from Penang on 13 May.

Update: As of 20 May, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to allow the boats to land in their territories and to provide temporary shelter to those on board.

What has been done to help the Rohingya people?

The United Nations passed a resolution last year urging the Myanmar government to recognise the Rohingya as citizens and put a stop to “violence, hate speech, displacement and economic deprivation affecting various ethnic and religious minorities, and attacks against Muslims and other religious minorities.” However, this is a non-binding resolution which sends a message to the Myanmar government rather than being enforceable law.

Syahir Ashri and Ling Low


Read this next: 9 things to know about the Prevention of Terrorism Act

HandcuffsMore from Poskod.MY: What you should know about Malaysia’s foreign workers

Foreign Workers Cover PicRead this next: Malaysia’s Human Trafficking Record