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Rohingya, where are they in ASEAN?

By Brad Bevitt
October 3, 2016

There are an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya living within Myanmar. However, there are also reported to be over 1 million that have fled the persecution to start life in a new country. Yet the journey they face is dangerous and one that rarely has a happy ending. At the same time members of ASEAN are accused of failing to address the issue. 

The Rohingya are an ethno-religious minority group that identify with the Rakhine region of Myanmar. How and when the Rohingya people got to the Rakhine region is contentious and at the heart of why they are so marginalised. Some claim that they are indigenous to Rakhine, others claim that they are Bengali who migrated during the British rule in Burma.

In 1982 the Myanmarese Government enacted a nationality law that essentially denied the Rohingya citizenship. The government does not include them as one of the 135 recognised ethnic groups who are eligible for citizenship and It is commonly held within Myanmar that the Rohingya are illegal ‘Bengalis’. Since the 2012 ethnic tensions and conflict within the country, many Rohingya are now living as internally-displaced people within Myanmar.

As the situation in Myanmar becomes increasingly untenable for the Rohingya, they have looked further afield for a place to call home. Only a short trip across the border, Bangladesh has long been a common destination for Rohingya.

However, it is sadly ironic that within Bangladesh they are far from being treated as ‘Bengalis’, as they are seen in Myanmar, and often live in squalid conditions. The UNHCR has 32,000 registered Rohingya on file, but estimates place the actual population at between 200,000 to 500,000 people. Life in Bangladesh for the Rohingya is harsh and insecure. While some stay on in camps, others use it as a staging point for further migration to Malaysia or Australia.

A fresh life in the ASEAN region?

Over the past few years, between December and March, when the conditions are right, large numbers of Rohingya have sailed from Bangladesh and Myanmar for a new life further south. Many aim for Malaysia or Australia but may end up in Indonesia or Thailand. The journey is one of great peril with food shortages, dehydration and violence on board (UNHCR 2015) and there has been little enthusiasm from any of these countries to accept Rohingya.


Slightly under 54,000 Rohingya are registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. However, the actual number of Rohingya in Malaysia is thought to be much higher. In a disturbingly similar way to the Rohingya non acceptance in Myanmar, Malaysia has a general suspicion that Rohingya are ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘refugees’.

While Rohingya are generally not deported from Malaysia, they are not provided full asylum or refugee status. They are restricted from employment in a formal manner and accessing healthcare in the same way as citizens, and their children are unable to attend national schools.


A small number of Rohingya have been living in Thailand for many years, however most new arrivals are in transit for Malaysia. They come via the overland route or by sea, both of which can be harrowing ordeals. There have been multiple documented cases of the Thai Navy providing a ‘push back’ service for boats where the smuggling boats, sometimes overcrowded, inoperable and lacking in food and water, are towed back to sea where they are let adrift (Human Rights Watch 2013 ).

If the boats do land in Thailand, the unlucky ones end up in jungle camps where their family members are extorted for money before they can continue to Malaysia. Those that cannot afford to pay face torture, rape, and death or a bleak future of forced slavery in the Thai fishing industry.


In 2015, at the height of the boat people crisis, over 1000 drifting Rohingya were rescued by fishermen on Sumatra, Indonesia. Although they may have received a brotherly welcome from locals, the central government made little effort to provide them with permanent protection. Rohingya were held in camps and denied the right to work or education. Recent reports suggest that most of those that landed in Indonesia in 2015 have continued their journey to Malaysia.


Singapore has long had a blanket refusal to accept any refugees or asylum seekers from any country based on the island state’s limited size. So far, Singapore’s response to the problem of Rohingya boat people has been to support other members of ASEAN that are ‘aiding’ them. However, with 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore, largely in construction or other menial jobs, it seems likely that some Rohingya are in Singapore either ‘legally’ with forged Bangladeshi passports or illegally.

Further afield

While many may set off from Myanmar or Bangladesh with dreams of a new life in Australia, the reality is much less promising. It is a dangerous and long journey that an untold number never finish, and with the Australian Government’s current policy of offshore processing for boat arrivals, it is one that is probably not worth starting.

Beyond the human tragedy that affects the Rohingya individually and collectively, there could be more sinister consequences ahead. Militant groups in the Middle East pray on vulnerable Muslims and have been actively targeting people from South East Asia. The stateless and desperate Rohingya would be a perfect target for radicalisation and militarisation.

The UNHCR has accused members of ASEAN of playing ping pong with the Rohingya, and ASEAN itself has done very little to address the issue. However, without a major shift of policy within Myanmar it is clearly becoming a situation that requires strong and unified regional leadership.

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