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Surge of Rohingya Flee Myanmar for Uncertain Future in Malaysia

By Mahi Ramakrishnan
January 16, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR — The United Nations has called the Rohingya Muslims one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups.

Fleeing persecution in Myanmar, the Rohingya see Malaysia, a Muslim country, as a potential safe haven. But Malaysia has not signed the U.N. convention on refugees, so the Rohingya find they cannot work legally, or send their children to school — not even those who were born here.

Activists estimate at least 18,000 have arrived in recent months. Most feel they had no option but to flee.

A violent attack left Ayub Khan's arm and neck partially paralyzed. “I tried to run away from the mob, but they caught up to me and slashed me on the shoulder,” he said.

Another refugee, Nayeemah, said human traffickers killed her husband as they fled with their children via Thailand to Malaysia.

“In my country, there’s so much killing, torture and violent attacks, so there was no alternative to stay there," she said. "I had to leave the country and head to Thailand.”

Eman Hossein left on a ship with some 400 others.

“When the people died they just threw them in the ocean," he said. "At least 50 to 55 people died.”

About 40,000 Rohingya in Malaysia are registered with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, giving them some protection from arrest and deportation. But activists estimate at least that many remain unregistered.

New arrival Nayeemah hopes to leave Malaysia.

“If I stay here, I will not be able to send my kids to school, so I want to be resettled to another country,” she said.

Rohingya activist Mohammad Sadek estimates that only about 1,000 Rohingya have been resettled to date.

“Many of the refugees are waiting for more than three decades," he said. "They still remain in the same condition without having any hope. So the UNHCR should resettle them as soon as possible.”

There's a slim chance of that happening, perhaps. But life as a refugee living in poverty on the margins of Malaysian society is still a life — something many here say is an improvement from where they came.

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Rohingya Exodus