KUALA LUMPUR: Amid worries that the Islamic State (IS) group is building a network in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is particularly concerned that IS militants will exploit the Rohingya community in the country, where tens of thousands have tens of thousands have sought refuge.
There are rising fears that they will fall prey to extremists if they continue to be marginalised. At a Rohingya refugee centre on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, more than 100 children aged between five and 13 are being schooled by teachers and volunteers from mosques, churches and temples.
Apart from being taught how to read and write, these children, who are Muslims, also learn about other ethnic cultures and religious tolerance. The founder of the school, Ustaz Rafik, said education is the best way to help these children to ward off undesirable elements such as extremist groups from infiltrating the community.
The Rohingya in Malaysia are in the spotlight after the country's counter-terrorism chief warned he had intelligence that some may join the IS’s cells in southern Philippines. The concerns were heightened following the Myanmar government's recent crackdown of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state that forced tens of thousands to flee to neighbouring countries.
But Ustaz Rafik stressed IS has no place among the Rohingyas.
"This Rohingya issue is not new, it’s been there for many years; even during the time of Al-Qaeda, the Rohingya didn’t go and join them, so why would they now?"
He added: “We are very strong in our heart we are looking for our right back to Myanmar, the right way, which is through diplomatic channels with Myanmar government.”
But migrant rights experts share the same concerns as authorities. They say the Rohingya, who have been described as the most persecuted minority on earth, can be exploited and radicalised by IS if they continue to be left in the fringes of society.
“If IS is willing to give them a sense of belonging an identity and probably remuneration, which is far more being paid by employer or having their own business won’t they be tempted to join this group,” said Glorene Fernandez, Executive Director of women’s rights group Tenaganita.
“Because they know they will have sense of belonging and sense of security if they join.”
There are around 100,000 ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia and about half of them are registered with the UN refugee agency. The Rohingya account for 80 per cent of the total number of refugees in the country and are stateless with no legal right to work or proper access to healthcare and formal education.
The Malaysian government have said the Rohingya are not entitled to these rights because Malaysia is not party to the UN refugee convention. Malaysia has also said it is doing what it can and has recently called on members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to help solve the crisis.
"We are doing the best compared to other countries in the region, if not why are they coming here?" said Nur Jazlan, Deputy Home Minister Malaysia. “We want the burden to be shared by other countries, not just in terms of dollars and cents, but also for them to take in some Rohingya.”
Migrant rights groups have reported that Rohingya refugees continue to find in their way into Malaysia despite sea routes being blocked after countries in the region tightened security to prevent human smuggling activities.
“They are also tempted to obtain Bangladesh passports so that they can fly over here,” said Tenaganita’s Fernandez. “Some 60,000 were said to have been displaced and currently seeking shelter in Tekna in neighboring Bangladesh.
The Malaysian government has also said that Myanmar should resolve the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state in a bid to prevent IS exerting its influence in Southeast Asia.