The largest refugee population at the moment in Malaysia is the Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic group from Arakan state in Myanmar (Burma), on the border of Bangladesh.
The Rohingya have been consistently persecuted for several decades, with the Burmese government completely revoking their citizenship rights in 1982.
Since then they have lived ever more precariously, denied basic rights, and experiencing regular and concerted outbursts of violence.
A surge in violence in 2012 saw a spike in people looking for any way out. Thousands paid people smugglers for a boat trip to Malaysia, only for many of them to end up in the human trafficking camps on the Thailand/Malaysia border.
The Burmese government-sponsored violence against the Rohingya reached another peak in 2016, when the deliberate mass burnings of Rohingya villages, accompanied by torture, sexual violence, killings, and arrests, saw more than 750,000 Rohingya fleeing to nearby Bangladesh. There they joined the thousands who fled earlier.
Subsequently, the military-dominated government in Myanmar has shown no signs of relenting in their aggression towards the Rohingya and other minority groups. Many more have been killed, many thousands detained, and many thousands more have fled. On the neighboring Bangladesh border, almost all reside in squalid refugee camps, with no immediate hope of return to their homes and no options for their future.
The UN and various international organizations and governments have labelled the events perpetrated by the Myanmar government as genocide.
More than 100,000 have made their way to Malaysia over the years. Many have been here longer than ten years, and some for thirty years. The Rohingya make up some 80% of the refugee population in Penang, and so the work of ASPIRE Penang is significantly with this population.