photo by Abdul Hashim Abdul Motalib
2.0 Who are the Rohingyas?
3.0 Why are Rohingyas leaving their homeland in such large numbers?
4.0 The situation facing Rohingyas in Malaysia
- legal status
- other provisions
5.0 The work of BRRCM
6.0 Suggested solutions
The Rohingyas have been in the news recently. You may remember the horrible pictures of Rohingyas washed ashore on Thailand beaches, after earlier being turned away from a safe landing. You may also recall then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi, saying that the Rohingyas should be sent back to Myanmar (quote)
So who are the Rohingyas? Why are they leaving their homeland In such large numbers? Why they are not wanted in other countries? What sort of a future do the Rohingya face? And what can we do to overcome some of the issues facing the Rohingya and the situation they find themselves in.
This booklet is an attempt to answer some of these questions. Thank you for taking the time to read it, and I hope we can work together to find more satisfactory solutions to the many challenges faced.
2. Who are the Rohingyas?
The homeland of the Rohingya is Rohang, in the Northern Rakhine State of Western Burma, bordering Bangladesh. Rohang has an area of approximately 20,000 sq miles. It is cut off from the rest of Burma by a range of mountains called Arakan Yoma. This gave rise to the older name of the state, Arakan, where Rohingya first settled probably in the 7th century. The Rohingyas trace their origin to Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moghuls, Pattans and Bangalees. Many migrated to Arakan during the time of the Mughal Empire and a large number came to Arakan later, during the British rule of Burma, from Bengal.
There are an estimated 3 million Rohingya still in their homeland, mainly concentrated in three northern townships.
The Rohingya have their own language. The first written Rohingya language was relatively recent. During the long colonial period under British rule, Urdu, Persian and English were the main languages used. Since then, scholars have written the Rohingya language using Arabic, Urdu, Burmese and Hanifi Scripts. The Rohingya language has been successfully written using Roman scripts, known as Rohingyalish.
Religion is particularly important to the Rohingya people, who are predominantly Muslim. Mosques and religious schools occupy most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregation and women pray at home.
3. Why are Rohingyas leaving their homeland in such large numbers?
Conquered by the Burmese in the early nineteenth century, the Rohingya and their Rakhine Buddhist co-nationals have since then be treated more as a subjugated minority than as equal members of Burmese society.
The subjugation and oppression of the Rohingya has intensified in recent times.
In 1982, the Burmese government stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, formally codifying an ongoing campaign to encourage them to leave the country. Many fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Amnesty International reports that "During 1991-92 a new wave of an estimated number of a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingyas were forced to work without pay by the Myanmar army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour of Rohingya civilians by the security forces." (ref)
So the Rohingyas are victims of lifelong statelessness and political conflict, economic exploitation, cultural slavery, religious persecution, forced labor, forced night guards, forced evictions, confiscation lands and properties, arbitrary taxation (rice tax, grain tax, vegetable tax, shrimp tax, animal skin tax, ,bird tax, breeding young ones tax, cattle slaughtering tax, wood and bamboo cutting tax, house building tax, repair tax, roof tax, received call tax, abroad relative tax(arbitrary interference with privacy family, home and attacks upon honor and reputation) accident tax, village to village travel pass tax, and ethnic cleansing.
Being victims of daily systematic gross human rights violations they have little choice but to leave behind their hearts, families and homes in Arakan, Burma.
4. Number of Rohingya People in Malaysia
The majority of Rohingyas leaving Arakan have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, but they face major problems there too. Some flee to countries farther away. One of these countries is Malaysia.
There is an estimate that some 28 thousand Burmese ethnic Rohingya boat people are currently seeking political asylum status in Malaysia. Approximately, 13,500 Rohingyas have been registered with United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and 14,500 have yet to be registered with UNHCR or with relevant organizations.
Ninety nine percent of Rohingyas in Malaysia are male. The females are unable to travel on the risky, yet rickety boats. So the Rohingyas are not only victims of lifelong statelessness, oppression and massacre, but are also victims of lifelong family dislocation and isolation.
In Malaysia, there are a number of major challenges facing the Rohingya.
a) Legal status
Malaysia does not recognize refugee status. It has not signed any international protocols or treaties recognizing processes to give someone refugee status. Rohingya refugees therefore share the same fate as any other refugee group in Malaysia: they have no legal status.
Thousands of Rohingyas have been living in Malaysia for close to twenty years, but the continued failure of the Malaysian government to provide any legal status to refugees, including the Rohingya, means that they face huge vulnerabilities, including arrest, deportation, and a lack of access to basic services such as education and health care.
There are regular incidents where Rohingya are harassed, detained, and/or deported by the Malaysian authorities, including by members of the police, RELA (a volunteer corp.) and the Immigration Department.
There is constant fear of harassment, arrest and deportation.
Malaysia does not recognize refugees seeking protection in its country. As a result the Rohingya, like other refugees in Malaysia, are targeted by immigration authorities and Rela, a volunteer corps charged with arresting illegal migrants. There has been a sharp increase in arrests, detentions, and deportations of refugees in recent years, including UNHCR registration card holders. Refugee women and children are also vulnerable to arrest and detention. UNHCR continues to have difficulty accessing detention centers to secure the release of registered refugees and asylum seekers. Detention conditions are substandard, and detainee abuses have risen since RELA was given the contract to provide security in these facilities in early 2008.
Deportation of detained refugees to the Thai-Malaysia border poses additional protection concerns. At the border, Malaysian authorities reportedly hand over deportees to human traffickers who demand payment for their release. Most Burmese refugees in Malaysia have formed ethnic-based community organizations that can pool funds to pay for the release of a deportee. The lack of community organization among the Rohingya forces them to rely on friends and family to secure their own release. As a result, the Rohingya are especially vulnerable to abuse, forced labor, and to being trafficked at the border.
So, despite the length of their residence in Malaysia, how can the Rohingyas feel part of Malaysian society?
The Rohingya, like every other human community, need to work to survive. Yet with no legal status, Rohingyas in Malaysia face a daily battle to earn some income whilst being ‘undocumented’. The lack of legal status means they are vulnerable to extortion, and often have to work for wages far below the level others would get. And work long hours without any legal protection relating to their work.
In 2006, the Government of Malaysia began registering the Rohingya for IMM13 permits, which would grant temporary work status and thus some protection. Due to concerns by the government surrounding the registration process, permit registration has since stalled, and the Rohingya, like other Burmese refugees, continue to live without legal status, making them more vulnerable to arrests. In addition, UNHCR has not registered any new Rohingya since December 2005, except for the most vulnerable. This further puts them at risk of abuse by immigration authorities.
Similarly, with no legal status, the Rohingya face difficulty in accessing health care. Many have been suffering, and even dying in silence all this while as they don’t have working permits to earn a livelihood here. The Rohingyas with UNHCR protection cards need to pay 50% charge at government hospitals from the charge imposed on the foreigners for medical facilities the legally in this country. While Malaysians pay minimal of RM 1.00 to enjoy government hospital facilities, the Rohingyas have to pay MR 7.50 cent for the same facilities. We fully understand that such a privilege is rightfully accorded to the citizens of this nation. But, we are hoping that we could be granted a reasonable low charge, especially with the economic situation not looking in favour of our low-wage earning community.
The children of Rohingya in Malaysia are not recognized and are at greater risk of statelessness than their parents. Though they get birth certificates and they do not get any right to attend school. In past two decades our unfortunate Burmese ethnic Rohingya children who have been born and brought up in Malaysia did have access to government schools although primary school education is compulsory and available free to all in this country. And hence, the stateless children have not been able to develop their knowledge, skills, personality, talents etc. There are 5-6 schools in formal primary school Selangor / Kuala Lumpur and 3 in Penang run by honorable humanitarian NGOs. These teachings can be made formal in these schools as a standard 1 to 3 student need RM 100-200 to buy his full school kits. For RM 100-200 life a student is deprived from formal schoolings.
e) Access to other services
5.0 The work of BRRCM
The separation of the Rohingya by the international community and by Burmese groups has led to an overall lack of support for a traumatized population for twenty years. This has led to severe illiteracy and an overall lack of education, substandard health and living conditions, and few options for a productive future.
It is striking how many Rohingya told Refugees International, “My life is over. All I want is for my children to have a chance at a better life.”
Two generations of the Rohingya have said this, only to see the vast majority of their community suffer the same neglect and lack of opportunity that their parents faced.
As a response to this, the Burmese Rohingya Refugees Community Malaysia (BRRCM) was set up. BRRCM is a non profit making and non political social community based organization that was founded by some socially conscious registered and unregistered Rohingya in Malaysia and they have established a small office in Penang state, since 2008.
BRRCM activities centre on key issues, such as helping to protect the status of Rohingya in Malaysia, health, education, and overall welfare of the Rohingya community. It works with local Penang and other Malaysian organizations, such as the state government, Temple of Fine Arts Penang, JUMP, Suaram, Tenaganita, CAP, Penang Muslims NGO Forum, and Citizens International.
With regard to status issues, BRRCM is all too aware of the difficulties faced by the Rohingyas due to the fact that they are not given any legal recognition. BRRCM cooperates with the UNHCR and advocates a complete registration exercise for the Rohingya community. In the meantime, BRRCM itself has drawn up its own ‘registration letter’ and has issued 1,370 of these to Rohingya boat people and 85 to other ethnic groups who are asylum seekers from Myanmar.
This is an effort to help give individuals some protection from RELA, Police and Immigration. We hope that having something to show them is better than nothing. A specimen of the BRRCM letter is contained in Appendices.
Where individuals from the Rohingya community are harassed, arrested, sent to detention camps and/or deported BRRCM works with groups such as UNHCR and Suaram (Human Rights Organization) to attempt to mitigate violations and take action to prevent human rights abuses.
Documentation is also an important part of this, and BRRCM has made a concrete decision to collect data of all boat people and vulnerable Burmese victims of religious and political oppression. So, far BRRCM has collected data from nearly one thousand boat people, with the help of the Penang Muslims NGO Forum and Citizens International.
We are also active in sharing the experience of the Rohingya to other groups. For example, we have hosted visits from Malaysian students to share the experience, views and ideas, related to the situation facing the Rohingya boat people and Burma Muslim asylum seekers. We have also cooperated with a Palestinian film-maker to make a documentary film about the Rohingya in Penang.
We are part of the organization named ‘All Burmese Muslims Council Malaysia (ABMCM), set up in 2009. The ABMCM aims to maintain integrity, unity and national reconciliation besides its welfare work having an Office with BRRCM under the same roof with common objectives.
With regard to basic services such as health, BRRCM links to local organizations to help organize provision of such services. For example, we have helped organize free medical camps to obtain at least some basic health screening for the Rohingya. There are also occasional emergency health problems which need the cooperation of local NGOs and health providers. For example, in 2008 there were nearly 350 seriously sick Rohingyas, who were immobile and were unable to seek medical treatment. BRRCM informed a local group, who immediately sent a team of doctors and ancillaries, to attend to our people in Bagan Dalam, Butterworth. The doctors diagnosed their illnesses and provided them with antibiotics, iron tablets, ointment and multi vitamins.
Further, other groups have organized mobile clinics, where up to 300 people can receive basic screening at any one time. Penang State Government Executive Councillor in charge of Health, Welfare, Caring Society and Environment, YB Phee Boon Poh, attended such a clinic in Batu Muang and has pledged his full commitment to helping solve Rohingya health issues.
6.0 Suggested solutions
Concern over the plight of the Rohingya has been verbally expressed by world leaders for many years. For example, Malaysian Ex-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed in January 1992; Saudi Prince Gen (Rtd) Khaled bin Sultan Aziz on Sunday, 12 April 1992; the UN Secretary General Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali on 6th 1992; Ex- Bangladeshi Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia on 13 March 1992; Ex-US President Bill Clinton and UNHCR Chief Prof. Sodaka Ogata on 23 December, 1992. But, the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia remain in limbo.
Actions are needed, and they must include:
1. That the Malaysian government recognizes the status of refugees and establishes a process following international standards by which persons can be given refugee status.
2. That the UNHCR and resettlement countries revise their policies to include the Rohingya more centrally in resettlement programs. Including the Rohingya in resettlement programs could also provide increased incentives to host countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia to provide durable solutions for the populations that would remain as refugees. At the same time, donors should push governments to ease restrictions on the Rohingya and support programs that will lead to increased self-reliance.
3. That the UNHCR in Malaysia speedily register all Rohingyas and that the registration document be respected by the Malaysian authorities (including the police, RELA and the Immigration Department).
4. That the UNHCR, Suhakam and other relevant organizations be given access to deportation camps, to ensure there is no abuse of basic living standards, and no extortion or trafficking.
5. That the Malaysian government tackles the issues of corruption and trafficking with fervour, in cooperation with other ASEAN governments and the international community. Trafficking is a horrific reality facing Rohingya and other displaced persons, and cannot be tolerated. The alleged involvement of officials from government departments makes it even more urgent that the situation be speedily and fully investigated and resolved.
6. That the Malaysian government, ASEAN, the UN and all other relevant organizations no longer turn a blind eye to the rampant human rights abuses happening in Myanmar. Report after report document the extent of these abuses, and the fact that, with the situation in Burma continuing to get worse, there is no possibility for the Rohingyas to return.
As one report puts it: "The situation of Rohingyas will not change until the situation in Burma changes ….. The military regime is committing every possible human rights violation with impunity, including gross violations of religious freedom affecting Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, and has persistently ignored the will of the Burmese people and the international community for far too long."
A time-frame for the Myanmar junta to implement political reforms needs to be introduced as soon as possible. "It is time that the United Nations set out specific benchmarks for progress, such as the release of political prisoners and an end to the crimes against humanity perpetrated throughout the country. We also believe a case against Burma's Generals should be referred to the International Criminal Court".
The longer there is little action on changing the situation in Myanmar, the longer the Rohingya, like other Burmese refugees, will continue to live in a state of protracted exile, with little hope for returning home in the upcoming years.
This underscores the need for the international community and national governments like Malaysia to plan humane and effective responses to the reality facing the Rohingya and other refugees.
An appeal to the honorable Malaysian Prime Minister:
Stating the above, a humble appeal is placed before the honorable Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Najib Tun Razak, to help ensure the lives of the thousands of our lifelong stateless people are given due recognition and due protection. BRRCM prays that the Malaysian Prime Minister will exercise his responsibility as a national and world leader, to protect the vulnerable and find a just solution.
Letter of certification
BURMESE ROHINGYA REFUGEES COMMUNITY MALAYSIA (BRRC)
H/P: 016-691 1974 (photo)
BRRC St Number: 1784-234
TO WHOM MAY IT CONCERN
This is to certify that xxx (Date of birth/age: xxx) s/o xxx is a registered with BRRC and is a vulnerable Burmese ethnic Rohingya asylum seeker from the Muslim community in Arakan State, Burma/Myanmar who had entered Malaysia fleeing his country due to the problems he /she faced on account of his/her religion, race, nationality and political conflict. Consequently, he/she has been facing constant and intensive threat to his /her persecuted life without any national and international protection and assistance in Malaysia.
In this regards, we hope the Police, RELA, Immigration Department and magistrates would on humanitarian grounds, protect the above mentioned victim of the political persecution from arresting, detaining, caning and deporting until such a time as the Myanmar Government has agreed to recognize him/her as its national and receive him back him/her back from Malaysia.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is humbly requested to assess his/her vulnerable plight to help him/her provide international protection and assistance.
Any national and international humanitarian NGO is humbly requested to help him provide possible free health and medical facilities.
We fervently ask the authorities to contact UNHCR to confirm that the above named is an asylum seeker from Myanmar.
BRRC Representation in Malaysia.
Date of Issue: 01/01/2009
Renewal date: 01/01/2010
Letter of BRRC certification
BURMESE ROHINGYA REFUGEES COMMUNITY MALAYSIA (BRRC)
H/P: 016-691 1974 (photo)
BRRC St Number: 1784—2051
Kepada yang berkenaan
Adalah disahkan bahawa pemilik surat ini xxx (tarikh lahir/umur:xx) s/o xx and xx dari Kelompok Muslim Negeri Arakan, Burma (sekarang dikenali sebagai Rohingya warganegara Rakhine, Myanmar) dan telah melarikan diri ke Malaysia meninggalkan negaranya kerana masalah bangsa, agama, negara dan politik semasa. Meraka secara berterusan berdepan dengan ancaman yang boleh mengancam nyawa tanpa mendapat perlindungan dan pembelaan baik peringkat tempatan dan antarabangsa.
Beliau tidak memiliki sebarang tempat yang selamat jika dihantar balik dari Malaysia kerana kerajaan Junta tentera Myanmar tidak mengiktiraf beliau sebagai warganegara dan enggan menerima mereka jika dihantar pulang dari Malaysia.
Untuk tujuan itu, kami amat berharap agar Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia, Polis, RELA dan Magistret atas dasar kemanusiaan dapat memberikan perlindungan kepada beliau yang telah menjadi pelarian tanpa negara serta mangsa pembersihan etnik di negara beliau supaya tidak ditangkap, ditahan, dirotan atau ditempatkan di pusat tahanan sehinggalah kepada suatu masa nanti apabila kerajaan Burma bersetuju.
Pejabat Suruhajaya Tinggi Menanggani Pelarian, Pertubuhan Bangsa-bangsa Bersatu atau (UNHCR) di Kuala Lumpur dengan rendah diri memohon kerjasama baik supaya beliau diberikan bantuan dan perlindungan secepat mungkin.
Seberang bantuan kemanusiaan dari mana-mana NGO adalah amat dipohon supaya beliau diberikan bantuan perubatan dan rawatan kesihatan secara percuma.
Nama yang tersebut di atas menpunyai hak memberikan surat ini kepada UNHCR supaya beliau mendapat hak-hak pelarian sepenuhnya.
Kami meminta pihak berkuasa supaya berhubung dengan UNHCR untuk mengesahkan nama diatas adalah seorang pelarian dari Myanmar
BRRC perwakilan di Malaysia
Date of Issue: 01/01/2009
Date of renewal: 01/01/2010