Updated at 8:05 a.m. ET on 2020-06-24
Kuala Lumpur city officials on Tuesday defended a decision to restrict refugees and migrants from entering Pasar Borong, Malaysia’s largest wholesale market, saying the move was necessary to prevent more outbreaks of the coronavirus.
Police last month detained about 1,000 foreign workers including many Rohingya who live near the market. An outbreak of COVID-19 had led to the market closing in late April before it reopened in mid-May.
“During the Movement Control Order (MCO), the KL wholesale market was one of the locations that were identified as part of the Pasar Borong COVID-19 cluster,” a statement issued by the City Council said Tuesday, referring to the name of the market in Malay.
“As the source of virus infection had been traced to foreigners, it is warranted for their movement at the market to be monitored and further restricted. This is to ensure that the wholesale market can continue to function without any hiccup because it is one of the centers of businesses in this city,” city officials said.
The statement said exceptions would be made for foreigners with valid papers and who were employed by retailers in the market as long as they were accompanied by their Malaysian employer.
The city council in Malaysia’s capital issued the statement to clarify a notice that it had sent out on Friday, and which went viral online and sparked criticism.
In its original notice, City Hall announced that people who held refugee cards issued by UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, were not allowed to enter the wholesale market.
The original notice said foreigners did not need to shop at the wholesale market because they could purchase supplies from nearby non-wholesale markets. It said the move was needed to prevent refugees from buying food items in bulk and selling them to others illegally.
Officials at the Kuala Lumpur office of UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BenarNews.
The area surrounding the market was placed on special lockdown on April 20 after authorities detected a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. The infection cluster spread to a total of 204 people – and officials reported that one foreigner had died of the coronavirus.
‘To buy onions you need to be chaperoned?’
Jerald Joseph, a member of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), questioned the need to restrict entry to the market for foreigners.
“It just doesn’t make sense to not allow refugees with UNHCR cards to enter the wholesale market. It discriminates by not allowing people their basic need for food to survive,” he told BenarNews. “Same goes for restrictions toward migrants. It makes it difficult for migrant workers ... just to buy onions you need to be chaperoned?”
Joseph said the ban would make refugees’ lives difficult and push them closer to exploitation.
“They are already in a vulnerable situation and imposing such conditions is heaping more difficulty on them, and it’s ridiculous. They have to rely on people’s mercy forever and may be more easily exploited,” he said.
Adrian Pereira, executive director of the North-South Initiative, an NGO that monitors human rights and assists migrant workers, accused city officials of discriminating against foreigners.
“Malaysian authorities clearly don’t know what discriminatory or discrimination means. Controlling re-sales can be done in other non-racist manners,” he said.
Meanwhile, Alex Ong, coordinator for Migrant Care, a human rights group, agreed with the order. Migrant workers had to abide by the country’s laws and provisions of their work permits, he said. In Malaysia, refugees are not allowed to have jobs.
“As for refugees, Malaysia needs to create a relevant policy for them to work and be protected like other migrant workers. So far, there is no working policy on refugees – the Malaysian government and UNHCR need to reach a consensus on this,” he told BenarNews.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated that an exception would be made for those with U.N. refugee cards.