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On Friday, hundreds of undocumented migrants were rounded up and detained by government authorities in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. This was ostensibly an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 by preventing the movement of migrants to other parts of the country. It has drawn criticism from the UN, human rights groups, as well as civil society organizations in Malaysia itself. Videos were posted onto Twitter showing long lines of migrants being escorted through the streets to detainment centres. The round-up followed a perceptible increase in xenophobic protest in the country, as migrants and particularly Rohingya refugees were blamed for spreading the virus.
The UN has asked Malaysian authorities to release vulnerable individuals—including young children— from the camps where the 568 migrants are being held. It also warned that the raids could be counterproductive. Phil Robertson, from the Human Rights Watch, posted a bird’s eye video of the scenes in Kuala Lumpar on Twitter, adding that ‘crowded detention camps will increase #COVID19, & prompt others to hide [and] refuse to cooperate.’
Opinion in Malaysia is split. Security Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, defended the decision, reiterating the status of refugees as illegal immigrants under Malaysian law. He also claimed that they had been screened and tested negative for COVID-19. The G25, a civil society organization made up of influential Malays, disagreed, however, in a letter to the government. They urged the government to re-evaluate the raids, as well as condemning the protests against foreigners that have been fermenting, noting that ‘Malaysians must realize that the migrant workers, whether legal or undocumented, are employed in the various economic sectors of this country and they contribute substantially to our economy’.
The situation in Malaysia is not unique. It provides a warning for the whole international community in the ongoing struggle against coronavirus. So often, there seems to be a need to locate blame in a weaker minority group. In India, for example, minority Muslim groups are facing similar displays of xenophobia. It certainly seems a nonsensical move for the Malaysian government to set up large, crowded detainment camps where social distancing is unrealistic. It is encouraging, however, that the G25 has spoken up against the government. The Ministry of Health’s recent announcement that foreigners will be given the same treatment as citizens is also heartening. As long as the government is held to account—both from outside organizations, but more importantly from Malaysians themselves—it will be difficult for the government to take advantage of the crisis for political and nationalistic ends.
Malaysia has recorded 6176 cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak of the virus, with 103 deaths. In March, a boat containing hundreds of refugees was refused access to the country and sent back to Bangladesh. Again, containment of the coronavirus was cited for this decision, which led to the deaths of 30 onboard.
It is important that the rights of refugees and migrants are protected and that governments take responsibility for them. Worrying miscarriages of justice occur when leaders attempt to curry favour with the masses in exchange for political currency. Rohingya refugees and other migrant workers deserve protection at this time; it is certainly not the moment for political opportunism and mass detainment. Further afield, too, we must be vigilant and aware of the potential for xenophobia to be powerfully active, as what Hans Rosling termed ‘the blame instinct’ reveals itself. Locating an enemy in minority groups will not save anyone from COVID-19.