Malaysia shouldn’t use coronavirus as an excuse to reject Rohingya refugees
- Fear of forced relocation and the coronavirus pandemic in refugee camps are fuelling new waves of Rohingya refugees
- Malaysia should not turn them away. It is worth noting that the principle of non-refoulement is aligned with values espoused by Islam
Malaysia’s response so far seems to be centred on two approaches. For boats that are intercepted close to shore or onshore, their occupants are detained. For those intercepted further out at sea, they are turned around and escorted out of territorial waters.
Social media sentiments generally indicate reluctance and hostility toward these “illegal” boatpeople, with a “Malaysians first” mindset. There are fears that accepting more refugees will lead to a flood of boats, a drain on resources and importation of new clusters of those infected.
Yet it would be a mistake for Malaysia to backtrack on non-refoulement and to use the pandemic as an excuse.
Non-refoulement applies “to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.” Despite not being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Malaysia is still forced to adhere to the principle that encompasses international norms and customary law.
Proponents of the “floodgates” argument forget that Malaysia’s “floodgates” have been open for decades. Refugee boats heading for Malaysia are by no means a new phenomenon. There are thought to be anywhere between 150,000-400,000 refugees from Myanmar already in Malaysia and some of them have been here for three or four generations.
Continued resistance would only highlight the inconsistencies of Malaysia’s declared position and open up the country to accusations of hypocrisy. It would further undermine Malaysian efforts to highlight the plight of the Rohingya and work towards a meaningful, sustainable solution for the refugee crisis.
If Malaysia can find the political will to uphold its commitment to non-refoulement, then the following should be considered:
First, resources will have to be allocated to preparing for and housing incoming boatloads of Rohingya. The government should consider working with the private sector and various foundations to expand programmes meant to support the low-income Malaysians, to include vulnerable refugee communities, including new arrivals.
Second, government ministries and agencies should engage with established refugee associations, NGOs and international organisations to assist with planning, preparedness and implementation. This can mirror similar arrangements with NGOs to care for the urban poor.
Instead of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to push boats back, Malaysia should see this as an opportunity for itself and other Asean nations to formulate much-needed long-term policies on refugees so that there are security and economic benefits for both sides.