“One can begin living as a human”: why resettlement is urgent for the Rohingya

12 May 2022

The Rohingya are a stateless people and one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, but their struggle has been largely forgotten.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is calling for Australians to #VoteForHumanity in May 2022 and to ask our leaders to address their plight.


A Rohingya worker walks down a street in the Pasar Baru market area of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. © Arnaud Finistre

More than 900,000 Rohingya people have been displaced from Myanmar due to decades-long violent and targeted campaigns led by the Myanmar military. 

In 2017, an escalation in this violence forced around 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where many remain five years on. They joined other Rohingya people who had fled previous waves of violence and now live in the world’s largest refugee camp. 

Many others have sought shelter in other parts of the region, including in Malaysia. 

Life-or-death experiences to reach safety

Rohingya people have been risking dangerous journeys across the Andaman Sea to reach Malaysia, fleeing violence and persecution, for the past 30 years. Because the Rohingya are stateless and continue to be denied citizenship in Myanmar, they lack protection from their home country and the necessary documents to enter other countries.

“Rather than face death or torture, the majority of us choose to leave by sea,” one man told MSF. “The voyage to Malaysia is always perilous, it is a life-or-death experience.”

Refugees now in Malaysia say that Rohingya are subjected to violence and abuse from smugglers during these sea journeys, which can take months.  They report not being given enough food and water for the crossing, with some people running out of food supplies weeks before reaching their destination. 

One refugee who spoke with MSF said some people became malnourished or even died before reaching their destination. 

Wealthy countries like Australia can and should do more to support refugees like the Rohingya and end suffering in our region. Ahead of the May 2022 Australian federal election, MSF is calling for Australians to #VoteForHumanity: ask your candidate to support increasing Australia’s general refugee intake by at least 20,000 people per year, including a plan to address the plight of the Rohingya.

“All my wishes and chances are dwindling”

In Malaysia, Rohingya refugees are denied legal status as the country has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its subsequent protocols. Refugees are not protected by domestic law and are effectively criminalised. 

Refugees can register with the UNHCR, but they don’t receive much assistance, cannot legally work and face limited access to education, healthcare and other services. To feed themselves and their families, many end up in the Malaysian informal sector carrying out dangerous, dirty and difficult jobs with high risks of exploitation.

The resettlement process in Malaysia is lengthy and limited. Some people wait up to 10 to 30 years to even begin it, and not all refugees are resettled, leaving many with an uncertain future. Several refugees told MSF that they know families of three generations living in Malaysia, waiting for resettlement.

“Malaysia treats refugees as illegal migrants, denying their basic rights,” says Nurul*, a 27-year-old Rohingya man who has been living in limbo in Malaysia for 10 years. 

“Over the last two years, there has been a rise of xenophobia against refugee communities, especially the Rohingya community. We have been living in fear of our uncertain future, constantly wondering what we will do if the Malaysian government sends us back to Myanmar, which we fled to save our lives.

“As a single person, I can only say that I’m growing older, feeling as if all of my wishes and chances are dwindling and I have no control over them.” 


Rohingya men informally employed as workers on a building site in the container they share for accommodation in Penang, Malaysia. © Arnaud Finistre

Resettlement necessary to rebuild lives

Asked how important resettlement is for him, Nurul says, “I’ll say it’s urgent; otherwise, our lives will be hopeless. Hope is what keeps us alive. Resettlement in a country means that we can begin from the start, and in my opinion, one can begin living as a human with basic rights that are certain.”

“Resettlement would give us an opportunity to rebuild our lives in a country that gives us basic human rights, including education for our children,” says Mohib*, 36. 

“Refugees can contribute to the community they are placed in. Resettlement means getting the refugees out of the darkness and in a place full of light.”

At a time when global refugee numbers are growing by a million each year, the Australian government decreased its refugee settlement quota from approximately 18,000 to 13,750 in 2021 and now ranks 26th in terms of overall intake. Australia’s aid budget has shrunk by $144 million in 2021-22. 

In Malaysia, MSF provides primary healthcare, referrals for secondary and tertiary healthcare and mental health support to Rohingya people and other refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, who are effectively excluded from protection, work, healthcare and other social services. We also provide comprehensive medical services in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees continue to face extremely poor living conditions and the inability to work, engage in education or meet their basic needs; and in Rakhine state, Myanmar, where Rohingya remain contained in camps, facing discrimination and exclusion.

*Names have been changed.

Join us and #VoteForHumanity this election

MSF has been providing assistance to asylum seekers and refugees affected by humanitarian crises, violence and persecution and exclusion from healthcare for the last 50 years.
Over the past 10 years, successive governments have reduced Australia’s aid budget, decreased its refugee intake, and have not provided a solution for hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers held in limbo.
We know that Australians value support for all people fleeing violence and seeking shelter, no matter where they come from. As wars and crises rage on in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Ukraine, we must remind our candidates that we will not accept inhumane policies towards refugees and asylum seekers.