Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET on 2020-04-28
A senior Malaysian official called for calm Monday amid growing “public anger” toward Rohingya people in the country, whose government has been criticized for turning away refugees due to COVID-19 contagion fears.
The surge of hate speech against Rohingya came as international human rights groups raised alarms that boats carrying hundreds of refugees were still adrift somewhere between Malaysia and Bangladesh, with both countries refusing to allow them to land.
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.
“I would like to ask for the people to be calm and do not raise issues that may cause anger and trigger unwanted situations,” Ismail Sabri said.
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.
Politicians weigh in
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.
“They were denied citizenship in their own country. That is why their villages were burned and they were chased out from their homeland,” Anwar said Monday in a video posted on Facebook. “If we send the refugees back to Myanmar, they will be suppressed and might even be shot to death.”
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 a must,” Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said in a statement on Monday.
“To send a signal that Malaysia will allow more boat people now due to the humanitarian ground, as being pressed by [opposition] Pakatan Harapan leaders … is not the solution,” former prime minister Najib Razak said in a Facebook post.
“If 200 want to come in, of course, there are others already in line waiting. They are safer at Cox Bazar’s [in Bangladesh] under the UNHCR, compared to being on a dilapidated boat in large numbers.”
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.
Rohingya boats off Bangladesh
The boat turned away by Malaysia on April 16 had originated in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladeshi where more than 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltering at refugee camps and settlements near the Myanmar border. The same day, the Bangladesh coast guard rescued hundreds of starving Rohingya from another boat.
Last week, as reports emerged that at least two other trawlers carrying Rohingya had been spotted off Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Momen said his country would not take in any more refugees.
His statement prompted calls by Human Rights Watch and Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to allow the Rohingya to come ashore.
“In a spirit of solidarity and at the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadan, I appeal to you in the strongest terms to open your ports and allow the boats to land,” Bachelet wrote, according to Agence France-Presse, which obtained a copy of her letter.
“The reportedly more than 500 men, women and children aboard these boats have been at sea for an extended period of time, and we understand that they require urgent rescue, food, medical care and other necessary humanitarian assistance.”
On Monday, a Bangladeshi coast guard official in Cox’s Bazar, M. Saiful Islam, said there were “no such reports that Rohingya-loaded trawlers have entered into our territorial waters,” adding, “we are ready to stop any attempt of intrusion.”
Asked to respond to Bachelet’s plea, Momen repeated that he would not allow more boats to land.
“There are many more countries around the ocean. The U.N. Convention says countries should take equal responsibility in cases of humanitarian crisis. We have already received one Rohingya-refugee-laden trawler. Why should we take the responsibility again and again?” he told BenarNews.
The Rohingya, he said, did not belong to Bangladesh but to Myanmar, which “has to take the responsibility.
“If Myanmar disagrees, then all the countries in the coastal region should come forward,” he said.
But, he added, “we don’t want them to die either, they are human beings.”
Jesmin Papri and Sharif Khiam in Dhaka contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misquoted PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang as saying that the action taken by security forces to turn away a Rohingya boat was "the right thing to do."