Mohd Rafik still recalls the day when Buddhist militants pursued him with a machete in his hometown in Buthidaung township in Rakhine State in Myanmar. His abdomen and shoulder still bear indelible scars from that traumatic experience. It led him to flee Myanmar for Malaysia in 2012. Two years later, his wife and two children eventually reunited with him—taking the same route by boat to Thailand, then overland into Malaysia, with the help of human traffickers.

Rafik and his family are just one example of thousands who have been pushed out of their homes. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 723,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh since 2017.

Malaysia has long been a temporary shelter for refugees and asylum seekers. In the late 1970s, the country opened its doors to Filipino refugees from the Mindanao region and to the Vietnamese boat people. Between 1975 and 2005, Malaysia provided safe haven for over 250,000 Vietnamese boat people. As of the end of December 2018, there are around 163,000 UNHCR-registered cardholders from countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. Around 86% of the recognised refugees come from Myanmar, comprising some 88,000 Rohingyas. Rohingyas came to Malaysia in waves, with the highest numbers notably during 1990 to 1994, 2000 to 2004 and 2012 to 2015.

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Eileen Chew

Eileen Chew is an independent documentary photographer and video producer based in Singapore. Her personal work is currently focused on stories relating to displacement, memory and socio-political developments in Southeast Asia.