Who are the Rohingya and what do they want?

Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia, there has been a rising vitriolic campaign by some sections of Malaysian social media users against Rohingya refugees in the country.

Although it is difficult to say what lies behind the campaign, the following seem to be possible triggers:

  • The recent arrival and subsequent pushing back of Rohingya boat people;
  • A self-proclaimed leader of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia purportedly demanding citizenship and equal rights in the country; and
  • Rumours that Rohingya refugees have dominated Selayang market areas and have been breaching the Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Who are the Rohingya people?

The Rohingya people, merely 4 million worldwide, are survivors of genocide by the Myanmar regime and have lived in political, economic, social and educational lockdown in Myanmar for more than four decades.

Today, more than one million of them live in concentrated refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Lacking access to education and up-to-date information, they are unable to fully understand the gravity and seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns around the world. Misinformation by the human traffickers, trying to coax them to travel to Malaysia, makes it worse.

Although it is wrong to move anywhere amidst lockdowns in most parts of the world, one can understand why Rohingya survivors have still ended up on Malaysia’s shores by boat, by land at the Thai-Malaysian border.

The Rohingya survivors escaping from genocide in Myanmar have ended up in Malaysia for shelter and refuge. A few are able to be resettled in third countries, but the majority have to stay in Malaysia, for years or decades, in hope of returning to Myanmar once it becomes peaceful and they are assured of their security.

They have no intention to permanently settle in Malaysia.

What do Rohingyas want?

Zafar Ahmed Abdul Ghani, a self-proclaimed leader of Rohingya who runs an organisation named Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (Merhrom), is alleged to have demanded citizenship and equal rights for the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, sparking outrage on Malaysian social media platforms.

Several times, in online videos, he has denied making such demands.

Nevertheless, he is not an elected representative, president or ambassador of the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.

The Rohingya refugees do not seek Malaysian citizenship nor to any rights not permitted in Malaysian law. They may seek temporary refuge and protection of their human rights and other rights under international agreements which Malaysia has ratified, such as child rights. (Although Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, it has respected the convention all along, based on humanitarian considerations.)

The facts about Selayang market

The growing concerns among the Malaysian public about Rohingya refugees dominating and controlling Selayang wholesale market and surrounding areas, and of them habitually breaking the laws even during the lockdown is factually incorrect.

Only a handful of Rohingya refugees are among the migrants or refugees who live and work in the areas. The majority are not Rohingya. Not all Muslim groups from Myanmar are Rohingya. Besides, to the best of our knowledge, the Rohingya refugees in Selayang are not in business but are just wage workers or labourers. An in-depth field investigation report will prove that.

Contrary to some unfounded allegations on social media and in some mainstream media, the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia as well as those resettled to third countries have been always grateful to Malaysia and its hospitable people and will always be. They always pray for the well-being of the country.

The Malaysian people have shown immense hospitality and solidarity to refugees, including Rohingyas, and we request you to continue doing so, based on humanitarian considerations.

A plea to the Malaysian government and media

We appeal to the government of Malaysia to continue to be kind to the survivors of the Rohingya genocide and provide them refuge and humanitarian assistance.

We urge the local media and international media to be more factually correct and in-depth in their reporting. A simple shallow or misreporting by the media could endanger the lives of the genocide survivors and jeopardise their refuge in the country.

Last but not least, we pray for and stand in solidarity with Malaysia and its people during this nationwide crisis and the stressful situations arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thank you, Malaysia! God bless you, and a blessed month of Ramadan.

Rohingya Women Development Network and Elom Empowerment are organisations working to strengthen and develop the Rohingya community.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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