Malaysia: A Rohingya safe haven?

Vital aid provided to Rohingya displaced in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but little done to help refugees inside Malaysia.

Malaysia Rohingya
Arifa Sultana, is a 23-year-old Rohingya journalist now based in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar's restive Rakhine state [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Inside a television studio a small team of four prepare the daily news bulletin featuring horrendous stories of rape, murder, forced exile, and the lack of an international response to these crimes.

But this is no ordinary television news station. It’s fully staffed by Rohingya refugees broadcasting online, sharing news and information from Myanmar, Bangladesh and beyond. It’s essentially refugee TV, brought to you from studios in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Sitting at the news anchor desk is Arifa Sultana, a 23-year-old Rohingya journalist. Her family fled from Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state to Bangladesh a mere 11 months after her birth in 1994.

Myanmar’s government has deprived the Rohingya of citizenship since 1982. But as Azeem Ibrahim points out in his book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, the campaign to exclude them as an official minority group began with Burma’s founding 1947 constitution.

Generations of Rohingya have been rendered stateless, and it seems a concerted effort to force them out of their homes and into squalid refugee camps has been undertaken by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces.


The Tatmadaw argues it is doing “security clearance” in northern Rakhine state, and has issued its own report denying any wrongdoing since these operations began following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25.

“Everybody knows that we are Rohingya but when it comes to documentation, there’s no legal proof,” Sultana told Al Jazeera. “This is the biggest challenge I’m facing now.”

Three years ago, Sultana came to Malaysia before the country temporarily sealed its borders to refugees fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2015.

Sultana wanted to continue her studies, and possibly attend a college. She quickly ran into the problem all Rohingya refugees do – the lack of necessary documentation to allow her to study legally in Malaysia.

“I’m sure there are many Rohingya like me who are more talented and educated,” Sultana said. “They have a lot of capability and potential but this is a restriction for them.”

Sultana turned to journalism. She began volunteering when she was 19 years old at Rohingya Vision TV, known as RVision to its staff and audience. It broadcasts in Rohingya, English, and Arabic.

Arifa Sultana, 23, is afraid to leave Malaysia fearing she won't be allowed to return
Arifa Sultana, 23, is afraid to leave Malaysia fearing she won’t be allowed to return

Sultana has been offered many opportunities to travel outside of Malaysia for professional journalism training, but she fears that she will not be allowed to return.

“When I started working here I was very emotional hearing all these stories. But now it’s part of my daily work schedule,” she said. “Thankfully, I have some senior editors who’ve guided me along the way.”

Ziaur Rahman, 24, is the Rohingya community’s most outspoken advocate in the country. He’s discussed the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya directly with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak three times.

“In Malaysia, we are not getting any protection, were not getting any support from NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. We don’t have any rights,” Rahman said.


Refugees in Malaysia have no legal status, so they can’t officially work or attend government-run schools. But Malaysia has allowed space for a “parallel school system”, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

These informal primary schools around Malaysia are set up and run by the refugee community itself, or faith-based organisations. The UNHCR directly supports 120 of these refugee schools.

There are 150,000 Rohingya refugees registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. Some refugee children as old as 18 attend primary level classes.

The Prime Minister’s Office said there are 16,809 Rohingya children carrying UNHCR cards, essentially allowing them and family members a discount on medical services at hospitals in Malaysia.

Rohingya Society Malaysia (RSM) is the only refugee community group recognised by the UNHCR. Its President Bo Min Naing said there are nearly 40,000 Rohingya still unregistered.

Sultana and Rahman say the UNHCR card doesn’t provide any security or legality in Malaysia. Refugees often work illegally to provide for their families.

Malaysia has no intention to help refugees assimilate or study in government-run schools, fearing more will come. It’s providing vital aid to Rohingya displaced in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but refugees argue nothing is being done to help those in Malaysia.

“The UN is doing a lot for us, but it’s not doing enough,” Sultana said. “Even after getting the card you’re liable to be harassed on the road [by authorities]. If you have no education and your children cannot receive education, what is the point of having a [UNHCR] card?”

RSM has supported 126 students since 2009 at its informal Rohingya Learning Centre. Despite its limitation of only three volunteer teachers, it hopes to one day be able to go beyond basic primary education and offer secondary-level classes.


“Our children need education,” said Bo Min Naing. “We need to have the opportunity to send our children to the government school until we are able to provide it.”

Rahman said he will speak about the necessity of improving refugee education next time he meets with Malaysia’s prime minister. Sultana said she feels responsible for Rohingya’s lack of education and voice in the international community.

This is why she loves working as a journalist, reaching her audience online, where many Rohingya refugees have turned to learn about the fate of their loved ones.

“We are denied all human rights. We have no legal documentation. I feel that if I don’t raise [this issue], people will not come to help us solve it,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera