Falling Through the Policy Gaps – The Rohingya Diaspora in Asia

In the wake of the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine State, Myanmar, the community has become increasingly dispersed across nearby Asian countries and beyond. With limited earning opportunities and consequently limited means for travel, the destinations for fleeing Rohingya tend to be a balance between conscious selection and any port in a storm. With Bangladesh, Myanmar’s closest neighbour, now hosting almost three times as many Rohingya as remain in Rakhine State, understanding the policies affecting the diaspora must be seen as essential to progress for the people described as the most persecuted minority in the world.

A Muslim minority in their home country of Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya people has evoked a certain level of fraternity and solidarity amongst nearby Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, but as the crisis has persisted across generations, the cracks are beginning to show. As developing countries, themselves with limited national policies regarding refugees, the ad hoc hospitality of many of these nations is beginning to give way to a tougher stance, and without the security of internationally recognised procedure, many Rohingya find themselves falling into the gaps left in the region’s policy response.

The UNHCR Convention

In most of Europe, and a significant proportion of countries around the globe, the 1951 Convention on the rights of refugees acts as a starting point for the response to asylum-seekers crossing our borders. The Convention, formed in the wake of the widescale displacement post-World War 2, is a critical tool which provides a standardised definition of who should be recognised as a refugee. It also outlines the responsibilities of host communities in terms of protection, and upholding of human rights.  It forms a central focus in the discourse, as well as a guideline for the law-makers in individual countries.

None of the top five countries hosting displaced Rohingya are party to this convention. In fact, of the top ten hosting countries only the USA and Japan have ratified the convention. For the other host countries on the list, such policies as they do have are largely impromptu responses to specific crises. For this reason, the resultant policies are in many cases not rights-based, and rarely accommodate for the complex needs of a large displaced population.

Recognition and Registration

Since the attacks on the Rohingya began, the questions of citizenship and official recognition have been central to the situation. Denied citizenship rights in their own country, most Rohingya are also unregistered and unable to register in their host countries who, lacking the legal framework to define refugees, acknowledge Rohingya only as illegal immigrants. Registration and citizenship are not merely symbolic for the Rohingya people. Without such official documentation, they are unable to avail themselves of a vast array of goods, services, and rights which most of us take for granted. They are limited across Asia in terms of educational access, entry into the labour market, and of course freedom of movement. These factors lead to a huge number of vulnerabilities including, but not limited to, exploitation by traffickers, exploitation by law enforcement, and lifelong dependence on aid and the goodwill of others.


Historically, the Bangladeshi response to the Rohingya crisis has been upheld as a bastion of solidarity between developing nations. Despite an obvious lack of financial resources for tackling the immediate needs of the Rohingya fleeing across their borders, the Bangladeshi government initially ensured space and access for humanitarian organisations to provide the Rohingya with the assistance they so desperately needed.

However, not all Rohingya moved across the border to Bangladesh, with some choosing other over land and maritime routes. Even some Rohingya who started their journey by crossing to Bangladesh have chosen to move on to find longer term solutions elsewhere.


As a geographically accessible Muslim majority country, Malaysia is the chosen destination for a number of Rohingya who decide to move on from Bangladesh. Our new report on the Malaysian contingent of the Rohingya diaspora gives an array of examples showing that many who arrive here continue to encounter struggles.

Despite a range of aid provision for Rohingya outside Malaysian borders, the treatment of Rohingya within Malaysia remains less than ideal, with institutional discrimination and a lack of recourses to appropriate employment regulation being among the problems they must face daily. These issues serve to highlight how the political rhetoric in the country is all too often at odds with the domestic strategy.

Our report also shows how the migration policies (or lack thereof) make the journey into Malaysia for Rohingya one of danger, exploitation, and often disappointment. The need for falsified Visas and documentation were shown to leave Rohingya people at risk of arbitrary detention by people traffickers or apprehended by the authorities and forced to turn back.


As a strongly emerging economy and the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia’s place in the Rohingya refugee crisis is also an important factor in understanding the position of the Rohingya diaspora. Similarly to the Malaysian response, the aid provided outside the country by the Indonesian government has been both generous and swift.

Despite its large populace the country has a relatively small asylum-seeking population from all countries of origin, and this is reflected in the number of Rohingya who have arrived there, with numbers far below those for other destinations including Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. That being said, the migration policies, such as they are, still tend to mirror those in neighbouring Malaysia, and involve both detention and deterrence. This approach has been attributed in some commentaries to a desire to maintain good diplomatic relations with important players in the region’s geopolitics.

Final Thoughts

A recurrent theme in the Asian response to the Rohingya crisis is the absence of a watertight policy pool, and the blurred lines between genuine issues of political development, and intentional omission of a useable political framework to evade the political and financial responsibilities this would entail. Within this context, without official identity or political recognition, the Rohingya are the ones who continue to suffer – trying to build a meaningful human existence on the fringes of society to which they have been driven.