Rohingya: The People Without Hope




Even as hundreds of Rohingya refugees continue to die at sea during their perilous boat journeys to Malaysia and Indonesia, their plight has evaded regional as well as global attention. The lives of those who stay put in the camps in Bangladesh or the shelters in Malaysia and Indonesia are miserable and bereft of hope. This stalemate, which has persisted for nearly seven years, needs to change, through regional and global efforts. 

(A group of around 250 Rohingya arriving in Indonesia’s Aceh province in November 2023
before being turned back to sea. Photo Courtesy: AAWSAT Media

Putting a Halt

On 7 February, Obaidul Quader, Bangladeshi Minister for Road Transport and Bridges, told the media that Rohingya refugees from Myanmar will no longer be allowed to enter his country. “They have already become a burden for us,” Quader curtly opined. The statement came amid reports of the continuing violence between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar military which have resulted in the intrusion of Myanmar security force personnel and civilians, including Rohingya, from Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh. While the minister didn’t elaborate on the official steps to prevent such an inevitable influx, the recent developments have yet again underlined the pitiable plight of the Rohingya, whose lives have swung perilously between despair and demise. 

De-humanising Existence in Bangladesh

It is easy to blame Bangladesh for being unreceptive to the Rohingya. However, it has been the forced host, according to the UNHCR, to nearly one million refugees, 975,350 Rohingya from 202,836 families.[1] on its territory for the past seven years. Fifty-two percent of this population are children. They live in cramped, bamboo-and-plastic camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s border district with Myanmar, as well as in Bhasan Char, a nearby island, where more stable facilities were provided to ease the pressure on Cox’s Bazar.  

International aid for the upkeep of the refugees has declined steadily over the years, burdening Bangladesh. In February 2023, the World Food Programme announced a reduction in the value of its food assistance to $10 per person from $12.[2] The amount was further reduced to $8 in June, even as the percentage of refugees who did not have adequate food consumption increased from 79 percent to 90 percent. Donor budgets had been stretched by the pandemic, economic downturn, and competing global crises. This meant that families were either having less nutritious food or the parents were forced to eat less or skip some of their meals so that their children could eat. In December 2023, however, a $87 million grant from the United States allowed the amount to return to $10 per person.[3]  

Shortage of food and consequent rampant malnutrition, huge issues in themselves, aren’t the only challenge for the Rohingya. In 2023, the camps in Bangladesh witnessed cyclones and landslides. Multiple fires, some of which have been labelled as “planned acts of sabotage” by investigators,[4] have periodically gutted a large number of shanties. Human trafficking has increased significantly, as have crime and gang violence within the camps, resulting in deaths and serious injuries. The inmates aren’t allowed to work, and children don’t have access to education. The widespread vulnerabilities have been exploited by alternative agendas.  These include those who exploit the desperate desire to escape.

Over the years, Rohingya, both those from Myanmar and the camps in Bangladesh, have sought to flee from despair by undertaking perilous journeys on rickety and leaky wooden boats in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, hoping to reach Malaysia and Indonesia. Over time, more women and children are undertaking such journeys. Total numbers have grown dramatically, picking up between November and April, when the seas are calmer. According to the UNHCR, in 2023, nearly 4,500 Rohingya embarked on deadly sea journeys in Southeast Asian waters, of whom some 569 perished or went missing.[5] This number of reported missing or dead persons is the highest since 2014. 

Compelling such desperation is the stark reality that the prospect of ever returning to their homes in Myanmar has dwindled. Always bleak, given the hostile attitude of the Myanmar military, who have refused to give the Rohingya citizenship and protect them on their return, the possibility of return is now negligible. The ongoing violence between the AA and the Myanmar military has dashed those hopes even further. 

Shattered Malaysian Dreams

As of the end of January 2024, there were 108,310 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia registered with the UNHCR.[6] UNHCR says its statistics “do not map or reflect new arrivals into the country.” The attraction of Malaysia as a land for a better life and opportunities notwithstanding, recent incidents involving the Rohingya point to the opposite. 

In Malaysia, most refugees, especially those who enter the country illegally after arriving by sea, are considered undocumented migrants. Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Refugee Convention of 1951. It does not have any laws to recognize and provide for those fleeing persecution and conflict. The country has no system to process asylum applications. The refugees have no right to work, receive education or healthcare. They can only register with the local UNHCR office, and get a recognition card that provides them some measure of protection and support, including limited access to healthcare, education, and other services provided by the UN and its partners. However the UNHCR card is only an identity document and has no formal legal value in Malaysia. 

The refugees, therefore, live a precarious existence as “illegal migrants,” doing odd low-paid jobs in restaurants, retail, and other service sectors, as well as agriculture and construction, but are always at risk of arrest. The fact that they are mostly semi-literates or illiterates has exacerbated the situation. Without legal protection and proper contracts, they are not entitled to receive Malaysia’s national minimum pay of Ringgit 1,500 (US$329) per month or Ringgit 7.21 ($1.64) an hour. Worse still, in recent times, the country’s immigration department has accelerated a crackdown on undocumented migrants, arresting them and sending them to immigration detention centres, which since 2019 have been beyond the reach of the UNHCR.[7]

Frequent riots have broken out in these poorly managed centres, leading to, on at least two occasions, inmates escaping and subsequently getting rearrested after a manhunt. In early February 2024, 131 Myanmar men, including 115 Rohingya, escaped such a facility in Perak state. One of them was hit by a vehicle on the highway and killed.[8] Earlier, in April 2022, more than 528 Rohingya refugees, including children, fled a temporary detention centre in Penang state, and six were killed trying to cross the highway. Most of the others were rearrested.   

Media reports have highlighted the plight of underage Rohingya girls, travelling from Myanmar and Bangladesh, being forced into abusive marriages with Rohingya men already in Malaysia.[9] Traditionally, parents of Rohingya brides are expected to pay grooms a dowry amount, which can be high, depending upon the suitability and demand of the groom. The journeys from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia often add to the spiral of exploitation. Boats have sunk, killing all on board. On many occasions, traffickers themselves have sexually abused the girls. Living on the fringes of the fringe, such girls, are not part of any statistics on Rohingya who live in Malaysia.

The Indonesian Pushback

Compared to Malaysia, Indonesia has received fewer Rohingya arrivals, although there has been a steady increase in arrivals to the two western islands of the country. Between November and December 2023, an estimated 1,500 Rohingya landed in north Sumatra. Another approximately 1,500 Rohingya have arrived in Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia. Around 70 percent of these refugees are women and children. Most of them are housed in temporary shelters, which have become overcrowded with fresh arrivals. 

Life of refugees, especially the children, in overcrowded shelters is far from ideal. They do not have the freedom to go out of the cramped shelters. Like Malaysia, Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Though it has a record of taking in refugees if they arrive, it has become far less receptive to refugee arrivals. While some Indonesians sympathise with fellow Muslim Rohingya, others blame them for consuming scant resources and coming into conflict with the locals. 

Consequently, the Rohingya have faced the ire of the residents who don’t want them in their communities and have frequently protested such arrivals. In December 2023, for instance, a mob of Indonesian university students attacked the basement of a local community hall in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, where 137 Rohingya were taking shelter. Videos of the incident showed the students, many wearing jackets with different universities’ insignias, running into the convention centre’s basement, chanting, “Kick them out” and “Reject Rohingya in Aceh.”[10] Elsewhere in Aceh, residents have tried to prevent Rohingya boats from reaching the shore and surrounded the tents of Rohingya on beaches and other temporary locations, demanding that they be relocated.[11] The Indonesian navy, too, in December 2023 forcibly pushed a boat packed with refugees back to international waters after it approached Aceh’s shores.[12]

Those in the temporary shelters have faced an organized online misinformation campaign, which also targets the local UNHCR staff. Anonymous accounts on Instagram, TikTok, and X have spread false information and have also identified UNHCR staff in Aceh, publishing personal information (“doxing”), leading to numerous online threats. 

Then-President Joko Widodo blamed the surge in the arrivals of Rohingya on human trafficking and pledged to work with international organisations to offer temporary shelter. He appealed to the international community for help and intensified patrols of its waters due to a sharp rise in Rohingya refugees. 

Plan of Action

Although inadequate amounts of humanitarian funds do keep coming to the agencies working with the Rohingya, amidst other ongoing humanitarian catastrophes, this crisis is clearly at risk of sliding off the global, and certainly regional, priority list. While the world, as well as the most prominent regional organization, ASEAN, has been shown to have little leverage with the military junta in Myanmar, there is no other country that can (or will) step forward to deal with the basis for the crisis. Since Myanmar will not, Rohingya options are limited— either to survive in the dehumanizing environment the Bangladeshi refugee camps provide or to attempt high-risk sea journeys that, even when ending with a successful landing either in Indonesia or Malaysia, provide little hope of upliftment.        

The UN agencies are desperately working with impacted states and other stakeholders, including refugees, to develop a comprehensive regional response to address these dangerous journeys. However, there are few signs of progress. 

This regional and global amnesia to the crisis has to end. The root causes of these dangerous maritime movements must be addressed. The international community must step up to make good on pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva in December 2023, which included “advancing solutions and enhancing self-reliance for Rohingya refugees to provide hope and reduce the compulsion to take dangerous boat journeys.”[13]

Meantime, conditions in Bangladesh need to be drastically improved. And those already in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia must be allowed to live a life of dignity, with the right to movement and employment.


[1] UNHCR, “Rohingya Refugee Response/Bangladesh: Joint Government of Bangladesh – UNHCR Population Factsheet”, 31 January 2024. 

[2] “U.N. to cut food aid for Rohingya refugees, citing fund shortfall”, Reuters, 17 February 2023,

[3] World Food Programme, “WFP’s Rohingya Refugee Operation in Bangladesh Receives Major Funding Boost of US$ 87 Million from the United States”,13 December 2023,

[4] Ruma Paul, “Bangladesh panel says fire at Rohingya camps ‘planned sabotage’”, Reuters, 12 March 2023,

[5] UNHCR, “Urgent action needed to address dramatic rise in Rohingya deaths at sea”, 23 January 2024,

[6] UNHCR, “Figures at a glance in Malaysia”,

[7] “Dozens of Rohingya refugees flee Malaysian immigration detention centre”, Al Jazeera, 2 February 2024,

[8] “More Than 100 Rohingya Flee Malaysian Detention Center”, Voice of America, 2 February, 2024,

[9] Kristen Gelieneau, “‘I feel trapped’: Scores of underage Rohingya girls forced into abusive marriages in Malaysia”, Associated Press, 13 December 2023,

[10] “Indonesian students evict Rohingya from shelter demanding deportation”, Al Jazeera, 27 December 2023,

[11] Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: Protect Newly Arrived Rohingya Refugees”, 16 January 2024,

[12] “More Rohingya refugees arrive in Indonesia despite rejection from locals”, Associated Press, 31 December 2023,

[13] UNHCR, “Urgent action needed to address dramatic rise in Rohingya deaths at sea”, op.cit. 

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of MISS. This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” project. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)