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A wooden boat carries suspected Rohingya migrants detained in Malaysian territorial waters off the island of Langkawi. Photo: AP

As Malaysia battles the coronavirus, its Rohingya refugees face a torrent of hate

  • There have been a flurry of petitions calling for them to be deported, along with an uptick in anti-immigrant comments on social media
  • Some Malaysians are decrying the resources spent on the Rohingya community, which experts say exacerbates persecution and mistrust
As Malaysia struggles with billions of ringgit in losses from the economic impact of its partial lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19, the country’s sizeable population of Rohingya Muslim refugees is facing a torrent of xenophobia – with some citizens decrying the resources spent on them.

Petitions calling for the refugees to be deported – a violation of international law – have flooded online spaces, while there has been an uptick in vitriolic anti-immigrant comments on social media. The government on April 16 turned away several boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees after giving them food, with the air force saying it feared undocumented migrants would bring more Covid-19 cases into the country.

With its hands already full battling the spread of the disease – which has so far infected more than 5,850 people, with 100 deaths – the Malaysian government is now facing pressure from two sides over its handling of the Rohingya. Those in favour want more refugees to be accepted, while those against are demanding the country reserve its resources for its citizens.

Mahathir blasts Myanmar and United Nations over Rohingya ‘genocide’

Malaysia has a long history of being a destination or midpoint for refugees, including Bosnian Muslims fleeing ethnic conflict in the 1990s. The Muslim-majority nation is a popular destination for the Rohingya due to the perception it is friendly to other Muslims, as well as its peacefulness, relative wealth and appetite for foreign labour. Many Rohingya refugees already have family in Malaysia.

As we guard our borders, we cannot let people die
Anwar Ibrahim

The country’s ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition has defended its decision to turn away the boats, but opposition leaders have asked the government to accommodate them. Democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim, who was until earlier this year tipped to become the nation’s next prime minister, on Tuesday compared the plight of the Rohingya to that of the Palestinians and suggested Malaysia “set parameters” for new arrivals to be housed in a special controlled area.

Starving Rohingya refugees, who were adrift at sea for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, following their rescue by the Bangladeshi coastguard on April 16. Photo: AP

“I think we should safeguard our humanity,” he said in a Facebook video. “As we guard our borders, we cannot let people die, moreover they are the victim of tyranny by their own government.”

Perikatan Nasional, which came to power in early March through a political coup, has largely been against accepting further Rohingya – with the exception of some members of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) who have called for the country to prioritise humanitarian concerns.

“To the people, understand the real issue of ethnic cleansing, the fate of refugees and human-trafficking syndicates, and don’t take advantage of a bad situation,” said PAS international bureau chief Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi in a statement. “To the government of Malaysia, secure borders but show empathy for refugees and come up with a concrete, long-term framework.”

Malaysia shouldn’t use coronavirus as an excuse to reject Rohingya refugees

During the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis, which saw thousands displaced from Myanmar, Malaysia after initial resistance agreed to provide them with temporary refuge. A year later, then prime minister Najib Razak held a pro-Rohingya rally, protesting against their persecution and breaking the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) protocol of non-interference. While he later pledged 10 million ringgit (US$2.3 million) to aid the Rohingya, Malaysia changed little in the way of policy.
Disgraced former premier Najib – currently on trial on charges of abuse of power and graft related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, and whose Umno party is a member of Perikatan Nasional – has since changed his tune, and stands by the coalition’s current stance. On April 24, he said on Facebook that Malaysia had already taken in many refugees, and asked how long the country would have to “carry the burden alone”.

Rohingya refugees already in the country are facing exacerbated persecution and mistrust – sentiments that activist and lawyer Nurainie Haziqah attributed to the “entitlement” of Malaysians “who think only Malaysians deserve help”.

“Malaysians are very easily influenced by unverified news, and now they are clouded by different stories and judgments of the Rohingya due to overall tensions from the lockdown,” she said. Nurainie’s aid initiative, Happy Bank, has been collecting funds to help underprivileged communities – including the country’s refugee population, which the United Nations places at almost 180,000.

Of that number, some 154,080 are from Myanmar, and 101,010 of those Rohingya. Under Malaysian law – which does not recognise refugees – they are not allowed to work, access government-subsidised public health care or go to school.

Malaysia deputy health minister fined US$229 for breaching coronavirus lockdown rules

According to activists and policy analysts, this has resulted in a precarious situation in which the broader refugee community is vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Many are engaged in informal, low-wage work such as sweeping roads or working in factories or construction sites, and there have been abundant reports of harassment, extortion and even detention by authorities – particularly among refugees who have not yet been registered with the UNHCR. Tens of thousands of children have no access to government-funded schools, settling for informal education at centres manned by volunteers.

The sudden increase in refugee arrivals via boat from Bangladesh and calls for aid from the refugee community on top of Malaysia’s health crisis and resulting lockdown – which prohibits travel except for emergencies or to buy necessities – has created a toxic sentiment for foreigners, according to Thomas Benjamin Daniel, a senior analyst with Malaysia’s Institute Of Strategic and International Studies.

Rohingya refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia maintain social distance while waiting to receive goods from volunteers. Photo: Reuters

“The Rohingya are a very visible group, highly dependent on aid and here in Malaysia in large numbers. There is general awareness that many more would like to come to Malaysia. However, much of the rhetoric is also based on long-standing grievances against them,” he said, adding that these were similar to anti-refugee sentiments around the world.

“There are widely held sentiments that the Rohingya take advantage of the kindness and generosity shown by Malaysians, that they are dishonest and engage in criminality, that they take away job opportunities and businesses from locals.”

The government, Daniel said, must now step in to re-emphasise to Malaysians the plight faced by the Rohingya, and reassure citizens that “their needs are not being diluted in favour of refugees”.

Coronavirus: for Malaysia’s migrant workers, lack of food is a bigger worry than Covid-19

Several anti-Rohingya petitions were recently posted on, with some collecting up to 250,000 signatures before they were taken down by the website, which prohibits hate speech. Defence minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Tuesday said 19 police reports had been filed over the social media campaign and that the authorities would investigate the issue.

Rohingya community spokespeople have also come forward to plead with Malaysians to show sympathy. An NGO coalition on Sunday said all the Rohingya in Malaysia were “in a state of fear due to the growing negative sentiments” against them, while expressing their gratitude to the Malaysian government and people for “allowing us to stay here temporarily”.

Civil society groups such as Mercy Malaysia and the Malaysian Relief Agency have asked Malaysians to show “empathy and mercy” to the refugee population during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Refugees did not choose to leave their country to seek greener pastures in other lands. Most risked their lives and that of their families escaping their own countries. They are not here because they want to be but because they are unable to go home,” the organisations said in a statement.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Rohingya face more hate amid outbreak