BANGKOK — The 2017 Rohingya humanitarian crisis caused by Myanmar is not only affecting Bangladesh, which has taken in 740,000 refugees, but it’s also causing strife in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Despite Myanmar’s alleged attempts at repatriation, Rohingya have stayed put in camps and cities fearing the security situation in their villages and towns of Rakhine state.
More Rohingya are returning to the seas, retracing the migration route of the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis from ports in Myanmar and Bangladesh across the Andaman Sea to the Strait of Malacca.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo mentioned the need to end the Rohingya refugee crisis and begin voluntary repatriation to Myanmar, at the recent 2019 ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.
Survivor: A Rohingya’s Journey is the title of Ziaur Rahman’s autobiography, to be published later this year.
Rahman – a married father of two – has lived in his adopted city of Kuala Lumpur for the last six years. But his story of displacement and asylum reflects the reality facing many Rohingya.
The United Nations Global Trends released in June states 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced globally, exceeding the entire population of Thailand.
“I was born in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. My father was tortured by soldiers and my family was targeted so we [fled] to the refugee camps in Bangladesh,” said Rahman. “I was living [in a refugee camp] for 20 years before I was kidnapped by human traffickers in Bangladesh.”
Thailand and Indonesia have become wayward stations for Rohingyas seeking refuge in Malaysia. The Rohingya community in Thailand states 5,000 Rohingya are living in the country, fearful of arrest and deportation by Thai authorities.
Thailand views all refugees as a security threat. There are 95,644 registered refugees living in nine camps along Thailand’s border with Myanmar, according to the UN Refugee Agency. The UNHCR in Bangkok estimates there are 4,779 urban refugees living in and around Bangkok.
Many countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have never ratified the UN Refugee Convention so they’re not obliged to provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. But all three have signed regional frameworks to halt the flow of migrants fleeing war and persecution in Myanmar.
Thailand and Indonesia’s governments allow the International Organization of Migration to provide support to Rohingyas detained in immigration detention centers. In 2017, a 16-year-old Rohingya girl died in a Thai detention center in Songkhla. She had been held there for three years.
Regional human rights group Fortify Rights documents human rights violations faced by Rohingya refugees. It has called on the Thai authorities to investigate deaths inside immigration detention centers.
In Malaysia, there are 170,460 registered refugees; yet human rights groups believe many are left unregistered. Most Malaysia’s refugees are Rohingya – many trafficked by sea or land to the country from Myanmar or Bangladesh, via Thailand.
A childhood friend of Rahman’s from the same refugee camp in Bangladesh ended up abandoned at sea, in a boat, until he was rescued by Acehnese fishermen.
Indonesia houses 800 Rohingya refugees living in government shelters in the cities of Medan, North Sumatra and Makassar in South Sulawesi according to The International Concern Group for Rohingya. Indonesia’s president signed a decree allowing for more community shelters to be built to house refugees. But no country in the region has a plan to assimilate their refugees.
In 2017, ASEAN adopted the Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children, responding to the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis where 25,000 fled on boats to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds died at sea.
“I was forced to stay in a [human] trafficking camp in Thailand. There was no food or water. Life became unbearable,” said Rahman, referring to the time his boat came ashore in Thailand’s south.
“When I was transferred from one camp to another I was rescued by Thai police. They brought me to the police station. I spent one day there before I was transferred to a Ranong court. After a few days I was declared a victim of human trafficking,” he added.
Rahman still carries the paperwork stating this, given to him by Thai authorities upon his release. A human smuggling syndicate active in the south was monitoring the shelter he was being housed in. He and another boy were sold, again, to smugglers.
“I was trafficked four times,” Rahman said. “They forced me to call my mother and demand 7,000 [Malaysia] ringgit [US$1,684]. I told them we didn’t have any money, so they handed us over to uniformed border guards.”
Rahman landed in Malaysia. From a safe house in Penang for human trafficking victims, he was able to make his way – with a friend’s help– to Kuala Lumpur. Here, there is a large Rohingya community living in Ampang, a suburb of the city.
Rahman was able to bring his wife and child from Bangladesh to Malaysia. Human rights groups have accused refugee men of risking women’s lives, attempting to bring brides purchased from desperate families living in Myanmar or in the camps of Bangladesh to cities in Malaysia.
Rahman was forced to make the decision no son ever wants to make – opting to give a better life to his family in Malaysia, but leaving his mother in Bangladesh.
Yet refugees in Malaysia have no legal right to work or study. The costs needed to visit a doctor or a hospital is too high for families with no income, reliant on assistance from local faith-based groups.
“I’ve been a refugee for 25 years and I haven’t received any support. I lobby the [Malaysian] government to tell them that we’re all human beings and our voices need to be heard,” Rahman said. “The UN doesn’t provide us with anything.”
Rahman’s advocacy on behalf of the Rohingya worldwide led him to meet Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak, as documented in the 2017 film Selfie With The Prime Minister.
Now Rahman and other refugees are asking the new Pakatan Harapan government to stick to its election pledge to sign the UN Refugee Convention. This would give all refugees the right to work and earn much needed income to support their families in Malaysia, and as far as Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“When the new government came to power I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad,” Rahman said. “I’m requesting a change of policy towards refugees in Malaysia. We’re lucky to be here, but […] I hope we can do something, otherwise our lives will remain hopeless.”
Just like President Jokowi, Mahathir pledged commitment to help Rohingya refugees find safe haven in Southeast Asia.
Leaders from Thailand’s Rohingya community attempted to submit a statement listing their demands to the leaders at the ASEAN Summit. But Thai police denied them entry.
The UN Refugee Agency states 92,400 refugees were resettled to a third country in 2018. That’s less than seven per cent of those awaiting resettlement globally. Nearly 593,800 refugees could return home, while 62,600 became naturalized citizens in the country they sought asylum.
But Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Thailand will unlikely allow refugees to become citizens. Official policy is to deny asylum seekers and refugees the basic protections they deserve under international law.
The Philippines is the only ASEAN country to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and provides a path to integrate them into society. President Rodrigo Duterte has even offered to resettle Rohingya refugees to the Philippines.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, wrote in the “Global Trends” report: “There has to be an enduring emphasis on solutions and removing obstacles to people being able to return home …It is one of the great challenges of our times.”
This article is part of the “Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia” initiative by SEA Junction, Bangkok and the TIFA Foundation, Jakarta. The first two stories in this series were published in the Bangkok Post. Adam Bemma is a Canadian journalist and media development advisor, trainer and mentor based in Thailand.