Acceptance of Rohingya refugees: People’s perception and feasibility

According to the UNCHR website, Malaysia currently has a total of 101,010 Rohingyas [1]. They have been here since the 1980s but issues surrounding their existence have just come onto the surface during recent years – thanks to social media. Recently, due to news reports stating that their boat was being pushed away at Malaysian shores [2], there have been debates whether Malaysia should be accepting more of them or not. Some expressed their opinions from the point of view of humanity and feasibility. Some go to the distance of not welcoming them by stating xenophobic sentiments. I would like to address some of the prevalent statements that are going around on social media.
The first one would be the typical ‘they’re dirty and they will spread disease’. From the context of Movement Control Order (MCO) and COVID-19 pandemic, some had justified their refusal to accept the 200 Rohingyas who arrived via boat by thinking that some of them might have COVID-19. However, I find that this contradicts with the allowing of Malaysians to come back from abroad during MCO period. The similarity between these groups is that both groups have arrived from other places, but the difference is their citizenship status. For the Malaysian who came from abroad, they had to undergo strict health screening. However, this process was not being considered for the Rohingyas. If they did not receive such treatment, of course they will spread the disease.  So, attribute the problem to the authorities who are responsible for the health screening process, not the Rohingyas. Now let’s look at the overall context of this statement by referring to the Rohingya refugees who are already here. Why do most think that they are filled with diseases? I’m not sure how this perception came about but it’s worth explaining that if it were such the case, the problem is systemic rather than their own doing. To be able to get health care at government hospitals, they would need to apply for a UNHCR card. However, drawing from several experiences, sometimes there will be difficulties in obtaining the card as well as accessing assistance. Some had to get assistance from informal institutions. In doing this, they have sought to negotiate access to institutions (such as public health facilities) and protection from perceived risks (such as those associated with the authorities). While these approaches can be successful, they are innately riskier, relying much more heavily on luck, personal circumstance and having the right connections [3]. Overall, the perception that they are dirty and bearing diseases is a problem that stems from a system that has several problems which pose a difficulty for the refugees to get basic healthcare.
The second perception that’s been going around is that they are uncivilized. In fact, this is also attributed to all refugees. So, how does one expect to become civilized? It’s through schooling. Given their refugee status, according to government  school admission process, refugees are not allowed to attend government schools. So, the Rohingya refugees have been living in Malaysia for more than two decades without proper access to education. This implies a generation without formal education. Many adult Rohingya refugees are illiterate, with some able to read and write Jawi and after years of living in Malaysia, the Malay language. The Rohingya refugee children attend learning centres operated by the community and faith-based organisation with the assistance of UNHCR [4]. Only 30% (all refugees) of school-going ages are enrolled into a learning centre. There is not even enough space for them to cater the other 70%. Knowing their situation in terms of lack of proper access to education, locals who perceive them as ‘stupid’ or ‘uncivilized’ need to look at it in a systems-based lens. Current research in cognitive science shows that intelligence is not fixed genetically, and that it can be significantly improved when the child is put in a nourishing, supportive and sensory-rich environment [5 & 6]. Therefore, to imply that they are uncivilized and stupid simply for having an identity as a Rohingya, it is to overlook that one element that is missing in their socialization process which is education – which can play a role in enhancing intelligence. With that, being ‘uncivilized’ is not a product of their own doing, it’s because our education system does not allow them to attend.
The third perception that I hear is that they will come and steal our jobs and they’re a part of an economic threat. As a general rule, I think perceiving them as a threat in locals’ economic participation is valid because if certain working sectors do not have enough supply of job opportunities then competition in terms of demand will happen between citizens and refugees. But then again by looking at the context of Malaysia, due to their vulnerable status (the difficulty to get a UNCHR card), even by having a UNHCR card might help them secure employment, it was an inadequate form of documentation for legal employment. Many of them only work in low-skilled jobs. I think the concern for Malaysians is the threat to the supply of skilled and professional working jobs. To be able to work in these white-collared jobs, they need certain academic qualifications. By taking a look at the education provided for the Rohingyas in Malaysia, they couldn’t even sit for SPM and obtain an SPM certificate. So, before we conclude that their existence here will ‘take our jobs away’, it’s worthwhile to look specifically at which sector we are talking about. We have to look at the systemic barrier that the Rohingyas are subjected to in terms of economic participation. According to interviews done [3], the most successful job opportunity for Rohingyas had achieved is to open up a business restaurant, even when there were obstacles prior to opening one. Given the existing refugee policies, I find this assertion is unsubstantiated.
How about feasibility in housing more of them? To help them solely on humanitarian grounds, it is insufficient. If we let them in but couldn’t even provide the necessary help without for them to go through so many obstacles, then there is no point of taking them in. This will defeat the purpose of humanitarianism. So, we have to look at the resources that we have. Apart from that, my concern is our existing refugee support system. Considering the fact that their livelihoods are not that well taken care of, and they have also been critical of the UNCHR management, I feel that Malaysia is not a suitable place for Rohingya refugees. All the more so because Malaysia is not a signatory at the 1951 UN Covention for Refugees. Knowing this however, it does not necessarily mean that Malaysia shouldn’t improve its system for refugees. Unless there is a change in the system, they will forever be in  a state of limbo. I advocate for the Rohingyas to have a better livelihood, but not in Malaysia – unless we adopt a refugee support system like that of Canada, then it would be feasible. According to The President of Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia [7], the organization has denied allegations that they had demanded citizenship rights. They only demanded for basic rights such as better job opportunities that are suitable with the skills that they have, employee insurance, cheaper healthcare fees, and for the authorities to stop catching Rohingya refugees without a solid reason to do so. These are all valid demands so that they can have a better livelihood in Malaysia. However, considering how they need to demand for these basic rights, it shows how the refugee system works here. It needs some sort of improvement. They should not be demanding for them because as a rule it should already be given to them. Another concern is regarding ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), an insurgent group which has been established as a response to the Rhakine Buddists attack on Rohingya Muslims, poses as a threat to Malaysia’s security threat. According to a news report back in 2019 [8], they have been raising funds in Malaysia and these funds have been sent to Bangladesh to fund  the militant activities there. However, it would be a hasty generalization to label all Rohingyas to have any involvement in the insurgent group. The Rohingyas have been giving them money because they have been threatened. In fact, majority of the Rohingyas have rejected this group. Fortunately, the police are quick to act on this. The idealist in me thinks that we should let the refugees in. But under the weak refugee support system that we have, the realist in me thinks of the long term impact of their livelihood if we don’t fix the system first.

Whoever has read this piece of writing, I hope we could consider several factors why the Rohingyas are such and such through a systems-based lens before making arguments that dehumanize them. I’m aware that there have been reports saying that they had done some undesirable things to the locals. But then again, if we look at it in a systems-based lens, that would be a product of human beings whose livelihoods have not been well-taken care of. I’m not justifying what they did, I’m just analyzing it from a systems-based lens. As for feasibility, I personally dread the fact that we don’t have a better refugee system to cater for them. However, to be realistic, Malaysia is not the utopian place for them. After thinking of what they have been through in Myanmar, they have sought shelter and security in Malaysia probably because we are a majority Muslim country or perhaps it just so happens that Malaysia is one of the neighboring countries that they can seek refuge in. But alas, people’s false perception through a short-sighted analysis renders them inhumane and the refugee system indirectly perpetuates such views about this group of people. 

p/s: I’m aware that this is a highly contentious issue at the moment and probably for the years to come. I welcome other opinions but let our discussion be civil.

[3] Wake, C., & Cheung, T. (2016). Livelihood strategies of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. United Kingdom, London: Oversease Development Institute. Retrieved from
[4] Letchamanana, H. (2013). Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia: Education and the Way Forward. Journal of International and Comparative Education2(2), 86–97. doi: 10.14425/00.50.24
[5] Perkins, D. (1995). Outsmarting IQ: The emerging science of learnable intelligence. New York: Free Press
[6] Levinger, B. (1994). Nutrition, Health and Education for All. Newton, MA: Education Development Center. 

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