A boat carrying 200 Rohingya men, women and children was turned away from Malaysian shores by the Royal Malaysian Navy on April 16. This move comes amidst growing xenophobic sentiment against Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, with many social media posts and petitions calling for the Rohingya to return home.
As at the time of writing, Malaysia has recorded 5691 cases of COVID-19, with 96 deaths being recorded. Human rights advocates have reported that right-wing organisations are seeking to capitalise on anxieties due to the pandemic by scapegoating the Rohingya community in Malaysia.
In the past, the Rohingya received a large degree of sympathy from the Muslim-majority country. More than 200,000 Rohingya settled in Malaysia after fleeing decades of brutal persecution and genocide in Burma.
This support has evaporated as many now seek to blame the Rohingya for the COVID-19 outbreak in Malaysia.
For example, former prime minister Najib Razak, who led a rally in 2016 condemning the Myanmar government for its treatment of the Rohingya, said on April 23 that he supported the Malaysian government’s actions in turning back the refugee boat. Razak said he believed Malaysia had already done enough to help and said “if you give an inch, they take a mile".
Sharifah Shakirah, director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Rohingya Women Development charity, responded to this sentiment, saying: “COVID-19 has made many of us afraid, but some, because of misconceptions, are using harsh words against one community, creating hatred against Rohingya.”
Shakira went on to say: “Many Malaysians do not differentiate between refugees and migrant workers.
“People are saying that we should go home. They don’t understand that the thing with the Rohingya is that we cannot return home. If we do, we will be killed. We are facing genocide.”
In Bangladesh, where most Rohingya refugees are based, the conditions are not much better than in Myanmar.
In Cox’s Bazaar, a camp in Bangladesh housing one million Rohingya refugees, the ability to treat COVID-19 cases is extremely limited. According to Plan International’s Bangladesh director Mohammad Riya, there is only one testing facility, one hospital with 10 intensive care beds and one isolation unit.
Cox's Bazaar is currently in lockdown with only supplies allowed into the camp. Although no COVID-19 cases have been found, it is feared that it is only a matter of time before an outbreak occurs. Riya said that in one of the world’s biggest refugee camps with a population density of 46,000 people per square kilometre, social distancing is impossible and their best hope is to keep cases to zero.
In response to the xenophobic sentiment many advocates and human rights groups have organised petitions calling on the Malaysian government to allow the Rohingya refugees to land.
On April 22, a letter published in the New Straits Times called on the Malaysian government to allow the Rohingya refugees to disembark and be quarantined and given health checks on humanitarian grounds. It also called for members of the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN) to adopt emergency measures to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
In an April 27 media statement, Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) spokesperson S Arutchevlan (Arul), spoke out against the xenophobic scapegoating. Arul said the capitalist class make huge profits, but in times of crisis they downsize, retrench workers and lobby governments for bailouts. In times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, they also need to find a “fall guy” to deflect people's anger away from them.
Arul asked: “In Malaysia, who else can be the fall guy? Who can we retrench first? The fall guys are the migrants from Bangladesh, the Nepalese, the Indonesians, as well as the refugees, the Rohingya and others.”
The PSM, in conjunction with groups such as the Migrant Workers Right to Redress Coalition, have been campaigning to find solutions to help migrant workers and refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
PSM has called for the building of solidarity with refugees and migrants and the adoption of policies such as universal healthcare, food security and housing, to help deal with the crisis.
[To sign the #SaveLivesatSea petition calling on Malaysia to allow Rohingya refugee boats to land, visit change.org.]