Over the past 2 weeks, reports about the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar have flooded our newsfeed. The extent of the crisis is huge, with 300,000++ people fleeing Myanmar for safer grounds, where the likelihood of being burnt alive within their homes is dramatically lower.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority group living primarily in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. The estimated one million Rohingya in Myanmar account for nearly a third of Rakhine’s population. The Rohingya differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously.
Due to the increasing acts of violence towards civilian Rohingya communities recently, discriminatory government policies, including restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement, and the fact that Rakhine state is one of the least developed states in Myanmar with more than 78% of households living below the poverty threshold (Widespread poverty, weak infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities exacerbate the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya), the Rohingya community are finding it difficult not to flee Myanmar.
The Rohingya Community in Malaysia
As of June 2016, more than 90% of Malaysia’s 150,700 registered refugees are from Myanmar, including tens of thousands of Rohingya, according the UN. Rohingya who have arrived safely in Malaysia have no legal status and are unable to work, leaving their families cut off from access to education and healthcare.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—all ASEAN members—have yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and its Protocol. Malaysia serve solely as a transitional point for refugees before they can be resettled.
With no official policies in place, the transition period varies from individual to individual. On occasion, it has even spanned generations, with new refugees being born into this dysfunctional system.
UNHCR, along with other NGOs and charities, is responsible for the care and well being of all refugees in Malaysia. Upon registration, those who are seeking refugee status must wait for the commission to assess their eligibility and while that is taking place, they must remain in Malaysia – unable to work and therefore unable to care for themselves or their families.
There are two possible outcomes to the process: They either become confirmed refugees and await the resettlement process, or are rejected and remain in Malaysia as illegal immigrants.
Workshop with the Rohingya Community in KL
Together with the good people from Dignity for Children Foundation (DCF), and Centre of New Life Singapore, a workshop for the community was planned. DCF has a big heart to serve the Rohingya community in Selayang as many of the children attend the school that DCF founded.
The community leaders highlighted that there are high rates of illiteracy, large households – some households having 4-5 children with only 1 income earner, girls in the community marry early, use of proper contraception methods are limited due to a lack of awareness and access, and knowledge of financial management is almost non-existent.
With these issues in mind, we developed a 2-hour workshop program for the women and men separately, specifically on the topics of financial literacy, basic hygiene, and family planning. The challenge was to be able to discuss and deal with victim mentality, and the feeling of powerlessness to change their situation. We recognised that one workshop may not make much of a difference, but it will be the start of a long term engagement with the community through DCF.
DCF will be conducting focus group discussions with the community in the coming weeks to see what worked and what did not worked too well, and also the kinds of skills-based and social support the community needs to build a more resilient, independent, and hopeful community.