Rohingya refugees targeted as COVID-19 fuels xenophobia in Malaysia


Malaysia was long seen as a haven of relative freedom and prosperity by Rohingya refugees and for decades the Muslim-majority country has welcomed and largely turned a blind eye to their technically illegal employment in low-paying jobs.

But the coronavirus changed the atmosphere towards Malaysia’s estimated millions of undocumented migrants and most of all towards the more than 100,000 Rohingya.

Just like in some other parts of the world, the novel coronavirus outbreak has turned sentiment against foreigners, who have been accused of spreading disease, burdening the state and taking jobs as the economy plummets.

While the Rohingya have been the most obvious targets, other migrants are also worried in a country that relies heavily on foreign labour at factories, construction sites and plantations.

“There is harassment on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before,” said one Malaysian activist, Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi, from the European Rohingya Council rights group.

She was threatened with rape on Facebook after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya refugees to land. The government turned back one boat with 200 refugees on board last month.

Sentiment hardened as the government imposed economically paralysing movement restrictions to stop the spread of a virus that has now infected more than 7,000 people in the country of 31 million and killed 115 of them.

As the mood turned against migrants, the government carried out raids this month in which at least 2,000 foreigners were arrested, some led away in handcuffs by agents in protective gear.

The government has not given full details of the detainees’ nationalities, but at least 800 of them were from Myanmar and the vast majority of people from Myanmar in Malaysia are Rohingya.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the arrests and the backlash towards refugees and foreign workers.

Two activist groups estimate that about 80% of the refugees who had jobs before lockdowns began were jobless. The unemployment rate among Malaysians rose to a five-year high of 3.9% in March.

“The community is in fear at the moment. Their challenges have increased due to the lockdown and the xenophobic attitude,” said Hasnah Hussein, a Rohingya volunteer at migrant rights group Tenaganita.

The Malaysian Employers’ Federation said the firing of migrant workers was to be expected as businesses struggled and undocumented workers would be first to go.

“Employers have always taken a risk by hiring refugees,” the group’s chief executive, Shamsuddin Bardan, said.

Meanwhile, online attacks on Rohingya have surged – particularly after unfounded allegations that a Rohingya activist had demanded Malaysian citizenship.

“The ‘hate speech’ directed at the Rohingya community raises serious concerns about the Malaysia government’s commitment to protect human rights,” a group of 84 non-governmental organisations wrote in a letter to Muhyiddin.

The government did not respond to a request for comment on the letter. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)