Updated at 7 a.m. ET on 2020-05-12
Scores of NGOs and rights groups together urged Malaysia’s government on Monday to speak out in support of Rohingya Muslims and stem a surge in hate speech on social media platforms targeting the stateless refugee community from Myanmar.
Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities detained about 1,000 foreign workers in a major raid in Kuala Lumpur amid fears over coronavirus infections.
Recent online posts in Malaysia against the Rohingya included threats and dehumanizing language and images, the 84 organizations – including Amnesty International Malaysia, Human Rights Watch and the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists – said in an open letter to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
“We urge you to act immediately to address the recent proliferation of ‘hate speech’ and violent threats against the Rohingya community and to ensure that incendiary rhetoric does not trigger discriminatory acts or physical attacks,” the groups said.
They accused the government of sending “mixed messages” about the refugees. The groups cited defense chief Ismail Sabri Yaakob as expressing sympathy for the Rohingya in an April 27 message. But his message, they said, was undermined by a statement from Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin days later, in which he emphasized the refugees’ lack of legal status or rights in the country.
“We urge you and your government to speak out in support of the rights of the Rohingya, emphasizing their status as refugees fleeing persecution and human rights violations,” said the groups, which also included the European Rohingya Council, the Malaysian rights group Suaram and the Islamic Renaissance Front, a moderate think-tank.
Muhyiddin, as the nation’s leader, along with other officials should highlight the country’s commitment to upholding human rights, the open letter said, indicating that the surge in hate speech against the Rohingya could have been driven by online petitions calling for the expulsion of the minority community from Myanmar.
In a separate statement, Human Rights Watch said the government “has completely fallen down on the job when it comes to protecting the rights of Rohingya refugees.”
“To date, the Malaysian government has done little to stop this cascade of violent threats against Rohingya leaders, resulting in the refugee community fearing even to go out to procure food and other basic supplies they need to survive in the COVID-19 lockdown,” HRW said.
At least 179,000 people, including more than 101,500 Rohingya, are registered as refugees in Malaysia, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. Many of those Rohingya entered the country after fleeing earlier bouts of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the home of the Rohingya, where they are not recognized as citizens.
Malaysia is not a party to the U.N. Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system regulating the status and rights of refugees, according to UNHCR.
Migrants rounded up
On Monday, in a surprise dawn raid, authorities rounded up about 1,000 migrants as officers moved in on rows of shophouses near the Kuala Lumpur wholesale market and screened thousands of foreign nationals for their travel documents, witnesses and immigration officials told BenarNews.
Officials, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said refugees carrying identification cards issued by UNHCR were not detained.
“Those who were arrested were taken to Jalan Duta for further documentation,” one of the officials told BenarNews. “At the moment, 1,000 have been detained. Only those with UNHCR cards were freed.”
Immigration agents, health ministry officials, as well as members of the Royal Malaysia Police and the army, were involved in the raid. A trader at the market told BenarNews that Bangladeshis, Indonesians and Myanmar nationals were among those rounded up.
Immigration chief Khairul Dzaimee Daud did not immediately return calls from BenarNews.
The wholesale market area has been under a lockdown to control movement as a result of high cases of coronavirus infections.
Malaysia reported 70 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, with 31 of those infections involving foreign workers, taking the nation’s cumulative tally to 6,726. Health authorities confirmed one fatality during the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide death toll to 109.
Tenaganita: Why penalize those who have the least?
Immigration authorities have registered about 2.2 million foreigners in the country, but rights groups and the International Organization for Migration estimate that 2.5 million to 4 million undocumented laborers also work across the nation, including many in rubber and palm plantations.
Like its neighbor Singapore, a city-state that was recently struck with coronavirus outbreaks traced in cramped dormitories housing thousands of foreigners, Malaysia’s migrant workers are also packed into hostels or living quarters with limited number of bathrooms, according to labor rights advocates.
Meanwhile, Malaysian migrant and refugee protection NGO Tenaganita urged the government to stop using arrests and detention to punish vulnerable communities, including undocumented migrant workers.
“Why do we continue to penalize and criminalize these communities who have the least in our society?” Tenaganita said in a statement, saying that such strategies to control the movement of people during the pandemic would “likely lead to greater harm than good.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly credited the photo to Tenaganita.