Rohingya refugees less likely to be radicalised, but violent tendencies exist, says think tank

A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi April 5, 2020. — Reuters pic
A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi April 5, 2020. — Reuters pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 20 — Social and community think tank, Iman Research, has through its study found that the possibility of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia joining violent extremist networks is low, but the factors influencing them to act on violence do exist.

The study titled “Over The Edge: Countering Violent Extremism Among Vulnerable Refugee Communities In Malaysia”, initiated in mid-2019, revealed key themes in the discourse of radicalism among Rohingya refugees such as refugee vulnerability, sentiments towards violence, and feelings.

“There are three reasons that underpin the Rohingya’s migration to other countries.

“The first reason is due to persecution they faced back in their own country usually from the Myanmar army,” the think tank said.

The study found that besides institutional persecution, Rohingya refugees also migrated due to lack of opportunities for them back in Myanmar.

“Constant discrimination leaves them unable to work and earn a living, while obtaining food supplies is also a challenge as their movement is restricted,” the think tank said.

Iman Research said Rohingya's vulnerability in Malaysia is also one of the aspects that needed to be looked into.

“Even as they migrated to Malaysia for safety, respondents struggled to survive by doing odd jobs illegally and earning meagre wages.

“Participants also cited several other concerns such as their children’s education and future, living conditions, refugee rights and access to healthcare services,” the think tank said.

Sentiments towards violence

As part of the data collection process, topics of violence were discussed by Iman field researchers with Rohingya communities to gauge reasons that might justify violent acts.

The first reason cited in the study was the failure of governments and authorities in easing their situation.

The study also found that some respondents regard violence as necessary and not a bad thing because to them it is just one of the ways to avoid being abused. 

“Though most participants renounce the use of violence in any situation, their painful experiences have driven a few to justify using violence to protect themselves and their rights, especially against the Myanmar authorities,” the think tank said.


Most participants showed visible anger, frustration, disappointment, distrust, and also felt alienated.

“A lot of these feelings stem from the protracted crisis they are in.

“Feelings of anger, disappointment and distrust were mostly directed towards the Myanmar authorities, which is blamed for causing this dire situation,” Iman Research said.

The study also revealed that frustration is a feeling that has been very obvious within the Rohingya community. 

“Most of the frustration stems from their current state in Malaysia and the double standards in treatment from the Burmese government.

“In Malaysia, their frustration stems from being unable to provide education for their children - given that Rohingyas are not citizens and hence, do not have access to formal education.

“There were also those who expressed frustration at their treatment by the Malaysian authorities,” the think tank said.

Violent tendencies

Through the analysis of these findings, the study found that that pull factors towards violent extremist groups among Rohingya refugee communities in Malaysia may be present in terms of violent intention, Jihadism intention and justification for violent action, as well as feelings of frustration, distrust, anger and alienation.

“All of these elements which were present under beliefs, attitudes and ideology may be considered as the pull factors that drew Rohingya refugee communities in Malaysia towards violent extremist groups.

“In terms of push factors, Rohingya refugee communities are denied opportunities to work in Malaysia while the financial system is also disadvantageous to them.

Rohingya refugees look out from their homes, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Kuala Lumpur May 18, 2020. ― Reuters pic
Rohingya refugees look out from their homes, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Kuala Lumpur May 18, 2020. ― Reuters pic

“These then provide the motivations for them to seek assistance from violent extremist groups,” the think tank said.

The study also found that there is a lack of access to formal education for Rohingya children, although non-governmental organisations have attempted to fill that gap by setting up refugee schools.

Remedying the crisis

In order to address the Rohingya refugees crisis and alleviate their suffering in Malaysia, the study has suggested a few steps to be considered by respective stakeholders.

Among the suggestions is to establish a national policy on refugees to ensure their rights are upheld, the think tank said.

“Due to the absence of legal measures to protect the rights of refugees in Malaysia, they are vulnerable to exploitation, especially when it comes to wages.

“As such, the national policy should include personal data collection to establish a refugee database by the Malaysian government, which encompasses healthcare services record, workplace, housing locations and financial information,” the think tank said. 

The think tank also said that access to quality education programmes is another important step that should be taken to counter and prevent violent extremism in the community.

Other areas that need attention include mental health support for Rohingya refugees who have experienced violence in their home country, support in healthcare services due to unaffordability, skills training to prevent refugees from falling into the same 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs and peace building initiative.

According to Iman Research, as of March 2020, there are some 179,520 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, with Rohingyas comprising the largest group at more than 100,000 people.

The study was done in collaboration with the Canadian government, to investigate the push and pull factors influencing the Rohingya community in Malaysia towards violent extremist groups, such as the Islamic State (IS).

The study was conducted through interviews and focus group discussions on targeted members of the Rohingya community, both men and women, living in Peninsular Malaysia aged between 18 and 70 years-old 

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