"Abroad means difficult..."

A research project into the irregular migration of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Malaysia

In July 2019, Xchange conducted 17 in-depth interviews in Malaysia with Rohingya refugees. The findings are presented in this video-report.


Departure: Bangladesh

During 2018 and 2019, Xchange explored the living conditions and issues which both new arrivals and more long-term resident Rohingya were facing in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Rohingya Survey 2019 focused on assessing the living conditions in the camps from the perspective of the Rohingya and explored their attitudes towards living in Bangladesh; 98% of respondents often felt stressed or overwhelmed by their living situation, whilst 41% felt at home very little and 47% did not feel at home at all in their camp in Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, almost one in three Rohingya (31%) admitted to considering an onward movement to another country, with 6% being determined to attempt to flee with the help of a human smuggler. The top desired countries of destination were in order of preference: Saudi Arabia, Canada, USA, Australia, Turkey, and Malaysia.

Destination: Malaysia

Being a Muslim-majority country with a dual justice system that incorporates Sharia law, Malaysia has long been an attractive destination for Rohingya Muslims seeking a prosperous future outside the cramped refugee camps of Bangladesh. Despite ranking only sixth in the respondent’s preferences in the Rohingya Survey 2019 Malaysia was geographically the closest country to Bangladesh, and hence the most affordable for Rohingya to go to. Moreover, two thirds of respondents who were in regular contact with a Rohingya abroad stated they had a family member or friend in Malaysia. The likelihood of a Rohingya choosing Malaysia over other countries could therefore be considered quite high.

Traditionally, Rohingya refugees have been reaching Malaysia by boat, crossing the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca either directly or via Thailand. Following a recent increase in maritime patrols by the Thai authorities, boat traffic in the Andaman Sea has been relatively reduced and the crossing has become a risky endeavour. As a result, the desire to escape the refugee camps has led many Rohingya towards seeking alternative ways.

In the last two years, more and more cases of Rohingya attempting to reach Malaysia by air and land have come to light; several have been detained at airports in Bangladesh and India, while a few manage to cross the border to India or get on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on forged Bangladeshi passports.

The Rohingya refugee situation in Malaysia

As of the end of April 2019, there are some 90,200 Rohingya refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Most Rohingya end up living in the northern states of Perlis, Kedah, and Kelantan (which act as transit points from Thailand), the states of Penang and Johor, as well as Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs.

Malaysia does not recognise the Rohingya as refugees – it lacks the legal and policy infrastructure to do so; the country has not signed the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, nor its 1967 Protocol (nor the 1954 and 1961 UN Statelessness Convention), meaning it is under no obligation to provide support and access to services. Even when registered as refugees with the UNHCR, refugees continue to be at risk of deportation as the cards granted by the UN do not constitute official documentation.

As a result, Rohingya refugees cannot access the formal labour market or public education even when recognised as refugees, and their access to public healthcare is limited. Hence, most Rohingya in Malaysia are irregularly occupied in industries such as agriculture, construction, textile manufacturing, or recycling scrap metal. Due to their vulnerability and uncertain legal status, cases of exploitation and human trafficking are not rare.

Refugee accommodation in Penang, Malaysia, July 2019

Methodology & Research Implementation

Research Objective

Building on the Rohingya Survey 2019, the aim of this video-report is to:

  • Understand the push and pull factors which led Rohingya refugees to consider leaving their camps in Bangladesh,
  • Investigate the means and connections they utilised to leave the country,
  • Explore what the journeys they undertook entailed, and finally
  • Give an overview of how life for the Rohingya community in Malaysia is and how they feel towards the situation in Bangladesh refugee camps.

Research Design & Data Collection

Over the course of two weeks (July 2019), Xchange conducted 17 in-depth interviews with Rohingya refugees residing in Kuala Lumpur, its outskirts, Butterworth, and Penang island, Malaysia. The data collection team comprised of an Xchange Researcher, a Rohingya cultural mediator, and a videographer.

The interviews were carried out with the use of a semi-structured interview guide either in Rohingya (12 interviews) or English (five). On average, each interview lasted 45 minutes. All 17 interviews were audio-recorded; 16 were also filmed.

Participants were familiarized with the purpose of the study in advance and were informed that participation was entirely voluntary and that they had the right to withdraw from the study at any given time. Immediately before each interview, written consent was explicitly collected for both the audio- and the video-recording of the interviews; all participants were given the option to disagree with being on camera (one participant) or not show their faces (five participants) and have their voice changed (one participant). Finally, all participants’ names were replaced with pseudonyms and all names of locations were excluded from the video-report.

Once the data collection had finished, the interviews were translated into English and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were subsequently coded and analysed thematically. The findings of the coding and the analysis are presented in the video-report.

Collecting personal information and Informed Consent, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 2019

Sample Description

Participant recruitment was done through snowball sampling initiated by a female Rohingya refugee who had also fled Bangladesh and was in Malaysia at the time. The snowball sampling was continued until saturation was achieved. This was in order to ensure a diverse, albeit non-representative sample, and to capture a holistic picture of the Rohingya diaspora’s experiences in Malaysia. The sample comprised of 13 male and four female participants, aged between 18 and 60 years, with a median of 26 years. Nine participants were born in Myanmar while eight were born in Bangladesh. All participants had moved to Malaysia from Bangladesh; 12 left Bangladesh prior to 2017 and five left after 2017. Their time in Bangladesh ranged between five weeks and 26 years, while their time in Malaysia ranged between seven months and eight years.

List of participants - © Xchange.org 2019

The male participants’ occupations included grasscutter, general factory worker, English and Mathematics tutor, interpreter, councillor, drain and street cleaner, and shopkeeper. The oldest participant was not employed, and one other male had recently resigned from his job. All four female participants were unemployed. Nine participants were married, one was divorced and seven were single at the time of data collection. A majority had received basic education or none, while five had finished class ten in either Myanmar or Bangladesh.


A pre-arranged 18th interview was conducted. Due to time constraints during the transcription and translation phase, this interview was excluded from the analysis and the final report. Since saturation had already been reached, the Research team considered that this interview would not add new aspects to the findings.

As some of the interviews were conducted in English, this might have played a negative role on the quality of the collected information. For the interviews conducted in Rohingya, questions and replies were translated from English to Rohingya and from Rohingya to English respectively. Despite the rapidity of these translations, it did present some difficulties when maintaining the flow of the interview. For the same reason, building rapport with some interviewees also became a challenge.


Video-presentation of the findings - ©️ Xchange Foundation 2019

In this video-report, Xchange explores the experiences of Rohingya who fled refugee camps in Bangladesh either by boat, land, or plane on fake passports and investigates what life entails for the Rohingya community in Malaysia.

Push and pull factors

There was an array of push factors identified that caused participants distress in Bangladesh and made them seek livelihood abroad. These included restrictions of movement, employment, and formal education. A few participants referred to their former residence as ‘concentration camps’; Rohingya in Bangladesh are not allowed to move outside the camps freely and need to follow certain restrictive and often changing rules. For younger participants, the main reason leaving Bangladesh was the limited formal and secondary education options, as well as the prohibition against working formally which prevented them from making a living. They felt they were always dependent on humanitarian assistance which intensified their sense of financial uncertainty. A majority stated they would often be discriminated against by Bangladeshi locals and even falsely accused, extorted, arbitrarily arrested, and incarcerated by the Bangladeshi authorities for crimes they allegedly were not aware of. To avoid the potential for such unfavorable situations, participants would often conceal their Rohingya identity among the Bangladeshi population, which only intensified their feelings of insecurity in Bangladesh.

Sometimes I had to pretend to be Bengali when I was living in a Bangladeshi environment. My everything: my dialogue, my fashion, my language… Everything had to be like I was from Bangladesh. Why? Because if my dress, my dialect were like a Rohingya, all the Bengali people would torture me.

Abdul Aziz

The Bangladeshi Government only speak on behalf of us when the United Nations provide them with money. If they do not get money, they kick us. If a Rohingya gets in an accident, there is no justice for us in Bangladesh. If foreign countries do not give them money for three days, they will start sending us back to Myanmar.

Ali Johar

Regarding pull factors, geographic proximity to Bangladesh made it easier and more affordable for interviewees to move to Malaysia than to another country. Apart from a few participants who were not well-informed about the situation in Malaysia prior to their arrival, most had a relative or friend already living in the country who kept them up-to-date and made emigration to Malaysia appealing as they could assist them upon arrival. Moreover, Malaysia being a predominantly Muslim country attracted the Rohingya who sought a place where they could practice their religion and culture without fear of religious persecution.

Several interviewees viewed Malaysia as a temporary destination; they knew in advance that the Government does not recognize refugees but also knew that UNHCR has a strong presence in Malaysia and lobbies for refugee relocation. This attracted many Rohingya who wished to be resettled to another country such as the USA, Canada, Australia, and Norway as their chances to do so from Malaysia rather than from other countries were perceived to be much higher.

Some of my friends have been relocated to another country after they came to Malaysia. […] I have contact with most of my friends who have already resettled from Malaysia. And they advised me that; ‘Mohammed, don't stay in Bangladesh, leave to Malaysia, and you can also be resettled to another country.’ With that hope, I came to Malaysia.

Md Rafik

Younger participants moved to Malaysia hoping they would be able to receive secondary and tertiary education. Reportedly, rumors had been spread in Bangladesh that the education system in Malaysia accepts everyone. Participants realized refugees are not admitted to the Malaysian education system only after their arrival.

[At that time] I was in Teknaf for some reason with a friend. […] I had only two hours to take decision to come Malaysia. My friend told me that the Malaysian government are giving facilities to study...Uh...So I listened to him. […] He was lying.

Yusuf Ali

View from Rohingya participant's accommodation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 2019


Twelve of the interviewed Rohingya had been living in Malaysia for between two and eight years at the time of the interview. Prior to 2017, leaving Bangladesh for Malaysia irregularly was facilitated by human smugglers mostly by boat via the Andaman Sea. Most participants going by boat said they were ‘following the trend’ of people leaving.

I heard from friends that one can go to Malaysia by boat. That’s why I decided to [give it a try]. How long would I stay in the refugee camp? Let’s see the world, how the world is moving, how people survive there. […] There, in the refugee camp, 21 years I lived under polythene; how difficult that is for a man. You develop no fear of dying at sea going to Malaysia. You know what I mean?

Salim Abdul

Participants referred to the people who arranged their travel from Bangladesh to Malaysia as ‘smugglers’, ‘agents’, and ‘traffickers’ interchangeably, indicating that for them the boundaries between smuggling and trafficking are blurred. This inability to distinguish between the two highlights in turn that Rohingya were at high risk of exploitation by people they would initially trust. Older participants had contacted their smuggler themselves to arrange their journey, while for the majority, the journey was arranged by someone in their family or a close friend. A few participants kept the move secret from their families. However, they recognized afterwards that this has put a financial strain on their families since there was a need to cover their journeys’ expenses by borrowing money they did not have.

I called my mom after I had reached Thailand: 'Mom I'm in Thailand!'. 'How did you go there?!' 'One of my friends brought me.' […] They didn't have any idea I'm going Malaysia. […] My sister and my parents were all crying and my sister told me that my mother had fallen unconscious more than three times.

Yusuf Ali

Unsurprisingly, no Rohingya refugee was required to show documentation to their smugglers to cross international waters and borders. Most participants, however, held onto a copy of their UNHCR card of Bangladesh to facilitate the refugee registration process with the UNHCR in Malaysia.

The journey was twofold for most and involved a stop in Thailand, which generally lasted for several weeks. During this time, they were moved from place to place to avoid detection by the Thai authorities. Participants were unaware of the exact locations they were taken to, referring to them as ‘the jungle’ or ‘the forest’, ‘the isolated island’, and ‘the mountain’. From there, interviewees either boarded another boat or continued by land, either with or without the help of local smugglers.

The financial cost of the journey was generally quite high. Participants disclosed they paid the equivalent of more than two thousand euros for the irregular boat journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia. Most of them had to pay for the first part of their journey in the form of ransom while they were in Thailand. They were kept in cramped ‘wooden houses’ by their smugglers until their families and friends managed to borrow money and pay the ‘debt’.

After we deposited the money [to their bank accounts] they brought us to the Malaysian coast, they showed us the way, and we followed their instructions. Whoever paid money, only they could enter Malaysia. The others were left on the mountain.

Md Roshid

Throughout the journey, there was no interviewee who had not experienced or witnessed incidents of human rights abuses, including murder, rape, beatings, enslavement, and torture, either on the way to or in Thailand.

[On the boat] it was too difficult. There was a rule for food and water, how much they will feed each of us per day; almost nothing. They scolded us giving this example: ‘You guys are here not visiting your parents-in-law’s house. Eat whatever we are providing.’ One 18-year-old boy lost his life drinking his urine. He was last in line and by the time it was his turn he had no water to drink.

Md Rafik

From whom the traffickers got money, they released them; from whom they didn’t, they beat them up two or three times a day. And then they [refugees] would became very weak; they were tied to trees with ropes and beaten with branches.

Muhib Nur

The five participants who had been in Malaysia for fewer than 24 months at the time of the interview did not use a boat as their main transport means; rather, they used fake passports and alternative modes of transport by air, land, or sea. They all followed different itineraries. Three had departed from Dhaka airport on different occasions during the last two-year period using forged Bangladeshi passports: one flew directly to Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia; one flew to Bangkok, Thailand, from where he continued by land; and one flew to Indonesia via Kuala Lumpur, was deported back to Bangladesh and tried anew following a similar itinerary. One refugee travelled by land to India, Myanmar, and Thailand before entering Malaysia by boat. The last interviewee was the only one who did not intend to find himself in Malaysia. He left Bangladesh by boat to Myanmar, then lived in Thailand, flew to Cambodia, and on his way to Norway on a fake Myanmar passport was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport. With the intervention of UNHCR, he managed to stay in Malaysia and at the time of the interview he was awaiting a decision regarding his application to relocate to Canada.

Typically, participants going to Malaysia by plane paid more to their smugglers compared to those who left Bangladesh by boat, usually the equivalent of more than two thousand euros excluding the cost of forgery of a passport which, according to one interviewee, cost an additional one thousand euros. Most were deceived either prior to or after their journeys by their respective ‘travel agents’-smugglers, who either ‘took the money and did not deliver’, lied about their itinerary, or stole the participant’s passport in the wake of their arrival in Malaysia.

Rohingya participant's accommodation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 2019

Life in Malaysia

Among participants, the perceived quality of life in Malaysia varied depending on the time spent in the country, work and social environment, as well as Malay or English language skills, among other factors. Overall, all interviewees agreed that their everyday lives among the Malaysian population were good, especially in comparison to how they would be treated in Bangladesh. Malaysians showed compassion towards them and as a result, no participant felt the need to conceal their Rohingya identity in Malaysia.

Malaysians who work with me, they are kind, show love and respect the Rohingya, whilst others like Bengalis are being looked down.

Md Rafik

Despite the feelings of safety and compassion, integration into Malaysian society is almost impossible, since refugees in general are considered by the Malaysian government to be illegal immigrants. All participants felt at risk of arbitrary arrest and detention by the Malaysian authorities, especially before receiving refugee status. The majority had personally experienced at least one incident of exploitation by the police.

After coming [to Malaysia] we had no clothes. [Someone who is like] our uncle took us to the market to buy clothes. There the police caught us, they checked us for UN card, they didn’t find UNHCR card then they took money from us. […] My husband borrowed money from neighbours, then he went there and released me by bribing them.


Soon after their arrival, all participants reached out to the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur and applied for refugee status. The UNHCR card provides Rohingya refugees with the right to move freely within Malaysia, yet this is perceived by interviewees as insufficient to realize one’s aspirations in the host country. One male refugee explained how he attempted multiple times to receive education over his eight-year stay in Malaysia, without success.

We had told UNHCR about study, but they didn’t get back to us. […] ‘We couldn’t study in Bangladesh. We have come here, if you can please give us the opportunity to study…’ I told them at my first interview. They held interviews three times. I told them during all three interviews about this. However, they didn’t give any opportunities. That’s why I’ve been working since.

Salim Abdul

Others narrated incidents of failed attempts to purchase a phone and a SIM card, open a bank account, or obtain a driver’s license. As a consequence of this, they all felt embarrassed, disappointed, and helpless.

In Bangladesh, the UNHCR provides us shelters to stay but we cannot go out anywhere. In Malaysia, the UNHCR provides a card for temporary stay here but we are not allowed to work. In Malaysia, there is no shelter for refugees. Malaysia is good to roam around but difficult to survive due to the restriction to work.

Nur Mostafa

Realizing that their options were limited, younger participants who were in need of education started working to make ends meet instead. All working males reported sending remittances every month to their families back in Bangladesh. As a result, the majority reported they were unable to save a reasonable amount of money for the future. A few participants resorted to working illegally in construction or cleaning services in order to cover their basic expenses.

We do not have any document except this UNHCR card. [However] with this UNHCR document they [Malaysian employers] are not allowed to hire us. Malaysian people like us. That’s only why we can [find employment].

Ali Johar

These findings emphasize the discrepancy between the needs of refugees and the services available to them, leaving refugees in a precarious position.

Basic accommodation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 2019

Looking into the future

Despite their feelings of insecurity, most participants preferred everyday life in Malaysia to life in Bangladesh. However, the vast majority advised against other Rohingya travelling to Malaysia; they perceived that the irregular journey has become riskier with time. Alas, no participant had a positive view about the future of the Rohingya who still live in Bangladesh either; they all believed that without a national identity and rights the Rohingya in the camps will continue to feel insecure. Interviewees shared a sense of alienation and lack of belonging. They often emphasized that the challenges faced by the Rohingya in Bangladesh are universal and not limited to the refugee camp context. Regarding finding a durable solution to their problems, gaining citizenship ideally from Myanmar or alternatively from Malaysia or any other country was again identified as essential.

No one can spend life easily abroad. We are country-less. Abroad means difficult. Living in your own country, that means easy. Everybody who goes abroad has to work hard. Who came here to be comfortable?

Salim Abdul

Without citizenship, none of the Rohingya are living with peace. They are all suffering here and there. […] Bangladesh is such a small country, such a populated country. Bangladesh received us... That is our good luck. But none of the Rohingya will make a better future in Bangladesh.

Abdul Aziz

We arrived in the refugee camp in 1991. Now, 28 years have passed. They said that they will give us our rights, but still they haven’t. Now more people have come. In the beginning, they couldn’t give rights to 20.000 people. Now, how will they give rights to a million people?

Salim Abdul

Some participants expressed an overall frustration about the lack of support they had been receiving in Malaysia. Given that Malaysia does not recognize them as refugees, the majority felt in limbo. The lack of protection, education opportunities, and formal assistance by the Malaysian government only intensified the feelings of despair of those participants who were willing to integrate into the host country if they were ever given the opportunity to do so. As a result, participants felt a sense of helplessness and lack of control over their future in Malaysia. Their desire to dream and aspire was thwarted by the inability to secure their basic rights.

Right now, I'm just thinking of my daughter's future. How I can raise her like others do. How I can help her be an educated human. That's the only concern for me. […] My daughter is still young to go to school but children from Myanmar are not accepted in Malay public school. If children were accepted to join, we would feel very happy because all the subjects are taught in the class.


Exploitation and eviction by their landlords were not unreasonable fears for participants either; a few have had to change residences within Malaysia which consequently put a further strain on their will to integrate and build relationships. Consequently, some interviewees stated they would return to Bangladesh should they get the opportunity to do so in the near future. The lack of education and job opportunities, as well as the need for social bonds and relationships were among the main reasons why they considered leaving Malaysia.

Why do [Rohingya in Malaysia] want to go back to Bangladesh? Do you know why? The peace of mind, the satisfaction, the happiness is not about...living in a nice accommodation or a nice place, where you don't have any certain future. […] My life has improved, but I always feel empty. […] Because I don’t see a future in Malaysia. There are no hopes for the refugees in Malaysia. You see how the people are struggling here in Malaysia, you can see this.

Md Ullah

Photo Slider: Refugee accommodation in Penang, Malaysia, July 2019


This video-report aimed to provide an overview of the migration experience of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Malaysia as well as an understanding of the life of the Rohingya diaspora in Malaysia. It highlighted the absence of a sufficient policy framework for refugees in Malaysia, where Rohingya refugees could receive quality education, gain skills, identify, pursue, and realize goals, and ultimately improve their livelihood whilst contributing positively to their host communities. Among interviewees, it was recognized that raising the education level among the Rohingya diaspora globally is a necessary first step towards improving their situation overall.

If you deprive a person from education, you destroy his whole life. The Myanmar government have deprived all of our nation from education, right to work, seeking medical care. Everything! That’s why if we want to claim our rights, we need to learn first what is rights? If we don't know what our rights are, we cannot ask for our rights. So, I would say to my nation, my people, to educate themselves first so that they can raise these issues to the international community and other countries as well. […] If we are not educated ourselves how can we educate other people? This the main point. So, in that case, I would tell my people who have at least a little bit of education to contribute their time and knowledge to the people who don’t even know ‘ABC’.

Md Zubair

In summary, we could conclude that there is an imperative need to conceptualize Rohingya refugees as valuable members of society and not merely as inactive victims in need of humanitarian assistance. Participants identified that access to services will alleviate their suffering, help them overcome their insecurities, and mitigate the sense of alienation the Rohingya diaspora experiences world-wide.

I think the international community is divided. There is China, US, UK, and they are divided; if one country is taking this side, then another country is taking the other side. And that is what is making the situation worse and it's not coming towards finding a solution to the crisis. They are divided politically, and their division is worsening the situation of the victims...That's what's happening. Otherwise I think it's not that complicated. […] I think when you are in a vulnerable situation, many people may take advantage of that. That's a very common instinct of the people. And the vulnerable people need people’s support, emotional support or whatever support they need. So, in that vulnerable situation they cannot speak out or say anything.

Md Ullah


Coordination, Research, Analysis, & Report-writing: Ioannis Papasilekas
Peer review: Jeki Whitmey

Contact Us

As an information and research initiative, we are eager to work with a wide spectrum of stakeholders to exchange information and knowledge.

We are looking for partners and funding organizations to support us in conducting a new round of surveys. Please, feel free to send us your proposals.

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