An increased public anger is felt in Malaysia against Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers as the coronavirus crisis deepens, raising concerns of a migrant crisis as South-East Asia experienced in 2015.
While Rohingya refugees have historically received popular and political backing in Muslim-majority Malaysia on the basis of Islamic solidarity, anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have eroded sympathy for the persecuted group.
Malaysia had previously allowed Rohingya arriving by boat from Bangladesh or Myanmar to enter the country, but last week the Government turned back a boat carrying some 200 Rohingya over COVID-19 concerns.
The Malaysian government and people generally sympathize with the persecuted minority from Myanmar, but something had shifted as the country endured the coronavirus pandemic, said Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a senior minister for security.
“During the MCO [Movement Control Order], this issue has become big, and even the authorities are surprised with the amount of news and social media posts that trigger public anger against them,” he told reporters in Putrajaya, referring to the Rohingya.
Malaysia has been on partial lockdown since March18 to COVID-19, which has infected the 5,820 people and claimed 99 lives in the country, according to the latest official figures. As part of the shutdown, foreign tourists and visitors are banned from entering the country.
The unintended impact of such policies came to light when Bangladesh in mid-April brought ashore a boatload of starving Rohingya, who said they had been prevented from landing in Malaysia during two months at sea in which dozens died and were thrown overboard.
Around the same time, social media in Malaysia began to buzz with anti-Rohingya comments and petitions demanding their deportation, along with criticism of a video in which a Rohingya activist demands citizenship and other rights for Rohingya in Malaysia, according to subtitles.
“We Malaysians don’t want any new Rohingya refugee trouble makers in Malaysia,” one man said in an online comment on an article about Rohingya in a local publication. “Stop coming to our country Malaysia. We already have too many Rohingya refugee troublemakers here.”
Seventeen Rohingya groups in Malaysia issued a joint statement over the weekend apologizing for the video, while the man seen in the footage called it fake and said he was living in fear amid a flood of threats towards him and Rohingya generally.
For years, majority-Muslim Malaysia has been a main destination in Southeast Asia for tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, and Malaysian leaders have frequently spoken out for the stateless group.
As of February 2020, close to 180,000 refugees were registered in Malaysia through the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR, with Rohingya accounting for more than half of the country’s refugee population, according to Fortify Rights, a human rights advocacy group.
Malaysian politicians meanwhile debated whether refugees should be allowed to come ashore under current conditions. Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto opposition leader and head of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), urged Malaysian authorities to allow Rohingya travelling in boats to disembark, as demanded by U.N. agencies and international human rights groups.
But members of the ruling coalition that gained power after an abrupt change in government in late February defended the move.
“The … decision by the security forces to bring aid while at the same time blocking the ship carrying the refugee from entering the country while the world is battling with COVID-19 was the right thing to do,” Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said in a statement on Monday.
Fortify Rights, for its part, noted that such “pushback” and “help-on” actions violate the internationally accepted principle of non-refoulement, which states that countries should not reject or intercept individuals at risk of persecution at their borders. (Source: RFA)