In Search of a Place to Call Home


In Butterworth, 10-year-old Mohamed Noor is playing football with his friends in an alley behind a row of shophouses. The children are speaking fluently in Bahasa Melayu. At sunset, Mohamed Noor waves goodbye to his friends and goes home to his parents’ rented room, where his mother is busy preparing dinner. Mohamed excitedly tells her about his friends – not in Bahasa, though, but in his mother tongue, Rohingya.

Mohamed is an ethnic Rohingya born in Malaysia. His parents were born in Myanmar – his father, Umar*, in Hasurata, a village in the Maungdaw township. When Umar was 18, his village was razed to the ground by the Rakhine people; both his parents were burnt to death.

Out of fear, Umar left Myanmar together with fellow villagers on a small boat crammed with more than 20 people. They crossed the Naf River and landed in Teknaf, Bangladesh. After spending six months in a makeshift camp with other refugees, he and a friend met an “agent” who told them about Malaysia, a country that allowed them to work and earn money. Eager for a better life, Umar took the risk and boarded an illegal boat for Malaysia.

The boat, however, did not stop in Malaysia, but in Thailand. Umar was detained in a human trafficking camp for two months until his uncle, who had been in Malaysia since 2001, paid RM2,000 to an “agent” who helped him cross the border into Kedah, where he met and married his cousin, Mohamed’s mother, two months later. They moved to Butterworth, where Umar found work as a cleaner in a restaurant. He earns around RM800 per month, with food and shelter provided by his employer.

Mohamed attends a private madrasah organised by Muslims in his neighbourhood – his UNCHR card does not allow him to study in Malaysian public schools, and the refugee schools in Penang are located too far for him to travel to. Mohamed’s teacher is however kind enough to allow him and his seven-year-old brother to join the classes.

While his Malay friends are affable towards him, Mohamed recalls some local children sneering at him and calling him “Bangla” when he was six; he was also told that he could stay in the madrasah and in Malaysia only because of the sympathy of the locals. It was then that he realised what “refugee” meant.


According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there were by the end of November 2018, 81,760 Rohingyas registered with the organisation. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 – registered and unregistered – Rohingyas in Malaysia, clustering in urban areas such as Penang, KL and Johor Bahru.

In fact, Malaysia has a long history of providing shelter to the Rohingyas, going back to the 1980s. While there is no accurate data on the birth rate of Rohingyas in Malaysia, it is widely known that the country is home to large populations of the ethnic group who have settled in the country for two or three generations – some Malaysia-born Rohingyas are already in their late 30s.

Malaysia-born Rohingyas are unique in their hybrid characteristic of combining both Malaysian culture and Rohingya ethnic identity. The Malaysian government does not allocate or limit refugees to specific areas, so the Rohingyas are exposed to the local community, allowing them to embrace Malaysian culture, including food and Malay traditions.

Growing up in Malaysia, most of them, like Mohamed, can speak basic or fluent Bahasa. While they are generally identified as Rohingya, Malaysia-born Rohingyas perceive themselves differently from Myanmar-born Rohingyas, who often link their identities with persecution, poverty and discrimination in Myanmar – such as Mohamed’s father. Those born in Malaysia connect their identity to their place of birth; some Malaysia-born Rohingyas have even gone to the extent of identifying themselves as Malaysian Rohingya. The distinct shared memories have created different identities for the two groups.


The lack of legal recognition in Malaysia has caused the group to languish in poverty, with restricted access to education and basic human rights. In July 2017 then-Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, stated that there would be no special privileges granted to children of Rohingya refugees born in Malaysia. To this day, Malaysia remains non-signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention – or its 1967 Protocol.

The National Registrar of Malaysia (JPN) issues red birth certificates for Rohingyas born in Malaysia, provided their parents are registered with the UNHCR – but most do not register due to financial constraints and security concerns. (Rohingyas have to travel down to KL to the UNHCR office or JPN to register.)

Article 14 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution, when read with Part II of the Second Schedule of the Constitution, states that any child born within the Malaysian Federation is a Malaysian citizen if he or she “is not born a citizen of any country” and cannot acquire citizenship of another country by registration within one year of birth by the operations of law. Unfortunately, this provision has not been extended to refugees, and the Rohingya children born in Malaysia remain stateless.

The lack of legal recognition has also restricted access for the group to education, despite Malaysia allowing for a “parallel school system”. Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, states that young Rohingya children who were born in Malaysia cannot attend public schools because refugees do not have that right.1

There are Rohingya refugee schools run by locals in Penang, such as the Penang Peace Learning Centre in Gelugor and the Rohingya Education Centre in Permatang Pauh. However, classroom places are limited.

“We have no place to go. I have nobody else in Myanmar – my whole family moved here. I have no clue about Myanmar either; I have spent my whole life here. Now Myanmar also doesn’t want us. Nobody wants us.”

Local community leaders are working hard to organise small-scale education institutions or Rohingya schools, but they face difficulties in terms of finance and registration. Funding comes from the Rohingya community, so most of the Rohingya-organised schools operate on a temporary basis and are eventually dismantled when financial constraints become too tight.

But while gaining a certain local acceptance, the group still faces discrimination and are labelled “outsiders”. Sometimes, they have no choice but to camouflage themselves as Malaysians through proficiency in Bahasa to escape social rejection. James Lochead of the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign reveals that most locals are not aware about the differences between refugees and migrant workers. He says that without legal recognition and basic rights, the community is basically divorced from society at large.2

Identity Crisis

Psychologically, Malaysia-born Rohingyas face an identity dilemma as they struggle to reconcile between their two identities. While Malaysia-born Rohingyas still stay close to the general Rohingya community, unfamiliarity with their home country prevents them from connecting with it to the extent that their Myanmar-born peers can do.

At the same time, Malaysia-born Rohingyas have to accept the fact that although they are adaptive to the local environment and culture, they do not truly belong to the country. Lack of legal protection has exposed them to risks of being arrested and detained. Although the Rohingya crisis is acknowledged by the Malaysian public, local discrimination still exists and from time to time, the group is still treated as a “thing” or a “situation” – and not as people.

Repatriation may not be the best option for Malaysia-born Rohingyas, even if the situation in Myanmar does become better – they are not familiar with the country and may not have any relatives residing there. Mohd Farouk*, 15, a Malaysia-born Rohingya, testifies: “I don’t know. Staying here in Malaysia is not safe. My brother just got arrested again, and he has a UN card. I’ve heard of the resettlement programme, but I don’t know what to do, or how to apply. The old couple staying in the same room with us say that they have waited for resettlement for many years.

“We have no place to go. I have nobody else in Myanmar – my whole family moved here. I have no clue about Myanmar either; I have spent my whole life here. Now Myanmar also doesn’t want us. Nobody wants us.”

This is testimony of the lack of social and legal recognition by host countries. This situation continues to lower the sense of belonging and creates anxiety among the Rohingya diaspora. There is an urgent need for legal recognition of refugees in Malaysia – and being a non-signatory should not be an excuse.

A good example to follow is Indonesia, which is a non-signatory country – the Indonesian government signed a presidential decree in January 2017 which provides the definition of “refugee” based on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The decree includes institutions that are obligated to manage refugees in Indonesia and reaffirms the availability of alternatives to detention for refugees with special needs and vulnerabilities.

The Rohingya crisis will not be solved immediately. Be that as it may, livelihood issues, especially the right to legally work in Malaysia, are possible to solve quite easily. The Malaysian government and UNHCR have tended to adopt a top-down approach, and it would be useful if they began instead to work directly with refugees on the ground. At this juncture, the hybrid nature of Malaysia-born Rohingyas can come in handy to NGOs and the government – they can serve as intermediary for the Rohingya community, the government and NGOs due to their knowledge of their own community and of the local environment.

To protect the privacy of the people in this article, names marked with asterisks have been changed.

Chan Xin Ying was a senior programme assistant at UNHCR BOKL and research analyst of the Malaysia Programme, RSIS, NTU Singapore.
2Personal Communication, James Lochead, 30 August 2018.

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