KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia is home to an estimated 30,000 Muslim refugees from Burma. Most are from the Rohingya ethnic group, which the United Nations has described as the world’s most persecuted minority. But an influx of new Muslim refugees fleeing bloodshed in Burma’s Rakhine state is adding even more strain on this community and its limited resources.
Some of the Muslim refugees from Burma have been in Malaysia for 20 years.
Community activists believe that several thousand more have arrived in the past year-and-a-half, fleeing anti-Muslim violence in the state of Rakhine. Most of them are from the Rohingya ethnic group.
But other Burmese Muslims, who are not Rohingya, said they too had no choice but to make the perilous sea journey to Malaysia.
Raahimah Nur Boshur said some of her relatives were killed when a mob burnt down her village.
“There was no way we could stay. The only way we could save our lives was to leave the country, to escape anywhere. We lost everything,” she said.
The recent influx is straining the community’s already limited resources. Muslim charities help out with food donations. And the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, provides various aid and issues the asylum seekers cards identifying them as refugees.
But Malaysia has not ratified the U.N. convention on refugees, leaving these people in a legal limbo.
They are unable to send their children to state schools or work legally.
Social activist Irene Fernandez said this made them extremely vulnerable.
“They are deemed to be undocumented by all enforcement agencies. Even when they go and try and get a job, they are going to be in a very exploitative situation because the employers know they cannot seek redress,” said Fernandez.
The Malaysian government recently said it would consider issuing work permits to the refugees.
Mohammad Sadek, a Rohingya community leader, welcomed the idea but said the refugees would still need significant help from the U.N.
“The U.N. agencies should not stop its obligations, and the U.N. agencies should continue its facilities to resettle them to other countries and to extend financial assistance, medical assistance, and other necessary initiatives for the welfare of refugees," he said.
Most of the refugees said they would be happy to settle in Malaysia if the government would ever consider absorbing them into this mainly Muslim society.