Challenges to the Rohingya Population in Malaysia
July 10, 2020
By Christine H. Kim
From political turmoil to the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia has had a particularly troubling 2020. As of now, Malaysia has handled the novel coronavirus relatively well, but the Rohingya population in the county has suffered as collateral damage. Malaysia’s ability to navigate this moment of crisis is informed by its leadership response, governance, and availability of resources, all of which are currently lacking. These deficiencies, coupled with the social and economic implications of the pandemic, have been used to justify Malaysia’s restrictions on asylum seekers and detainment of refugees and migrants.
Malaysia has been a preferred destination for Rohingya fleeing Myanmar’s genocide and more recently refugee camps in Bangladesh. In 2016, with the encouragement of officials like then-prime minister Najib Razak, Malaysia opened its borders to stateless Rohingya. Since then, however, Malaysia’s stance toward the refugees has shifted to apathy and even hostility. On April 16, 2020, the Malaysian Navy intercepted and pushed back two refugee boats of about 200 passengers in Langkawi. In the same month, Malaysia formed the National Task Force (NTF) to better combat the influx of foreigners. Since May, the NTF has denied entry to 22 boats and implemented at least four immigration clampdowns, resulting in the arrest of 2,000 people, including 98 children. Most recently on July 7, Malaysian authorities launched an investigation into an Al Jazeera documentary on the arrest of undocumented migrants, accusing the documentary of an “attempt to tarnish Malaysia’s image.” The NTF, unlike past security enforcement agencies, is a joint organization composed of members of the Malaysian Armed Forces, the Royal Malaysian Police, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Its main priorities are national and border security, not humanitarian assistance.
In the past, Malaysia openly supported Rohingya people. Najib appealed to the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for foreign intervention on behalf of beleaguered Rohingya. Political parties UMNO and PAS organized a rally attracting some 10,000 protestors, mostly Rohingya. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently over 100,000 Rohingya in Malaysia. The 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol outline the basic human rights of refugees with the key provision that individuals should not be refouled, or returned, to countries or territories where they are liable to face human rights violations. This principle of non-refoulment also stipulates “refugee status determination is declaratory in nature: a person does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognized because he or she is a refugee.” Unlike Cambodia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste, Malaysia is not a signatory of the Convention or its Protocol. Those who are not party to the Convention are not obligated to follow all UNHCR international humanitarian standards; however, non-Convention states, like Malaysia, must still adhere to the principle of non-refoulement, which is a matter of customary international law incumbent on all countries. Furthermore, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration asserts the right to “seek and receive asylum.”
Regardless of their position vis a vis UNHCR, the Rohingya “have no status, rights or basis to make any claims on the [Malaysian] government,” explained Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin in April. Even Najib has since retracted his support for Rohingya people, asking, “Until when should Malaysia shoulder this responsibility alone?” This frustration precedes the Covid-19 pandemic as evident in the “The State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report” conducted by the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in 2019. When asked what ASEAN could do to better address the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, a plurality of respondents from Malaysia (38.8 percent) answered, “ASEAN should mediate between the Myanmar government and the Rakhine and Rohingya communities.” Moreover, in a separate question, a majority of Malaysian respondents (56.4 percent) rejected “the resettlement of displaced Rohingya people” in the country. These findings echo Malaysia’s 2016 request for a more proactive foreign intervention.
This sentiment, which has since intensified with the rocky ascension of Minister of Home Affairs Muhyiddin Yassin to the office of prime minister and the economic and social impacts of the epidemic, has evolved into a glaring animus against Rohingya people. Instances of xenophobia have been ubiquitous during this global crisis, but Malaysia’s present predicament is particularly complex. Public discourse and social media platforms are inundated by misinformation and online petitions demanding deportation. Some Malaysians, including politicians, have blamed refugees and migrants for spreading Covid-19 and taking jobs. “Receiving the Rohingya at times like this could open the floodgates for more foreign nationals and vessels to approach the Malaysian border and therefore hinder the government’s effort to fight Covid-19,” argued UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan. Citizens are the priority; the marginalized are expendable.
Malaysia’s justifications for its human rights violations have resulted in mixed global responses. Human Rights Watch urged the Malaysian government to ensure “fundamental human rights.” Amnesty International criticized Malaysia’s “heinous” and “life-threatening” plan to send 269 asylum-seeking Rohingya back to sea. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a global appeal on May 8 “for an all-out effort to end hate speech globally.” Three days later, the United Nations issued a guidance note warning about the implications of Covid-19-related hate speech. Despite this, “we can no longer take more [Rohingya people] as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic,” countered Muhyiddin at the 36th ASEAN Summit on June 26.
Malaysia’s recent wave of intolerance is to some extent a manifestation of the struggles and stresses during this critical moment. The government is still recovering from political collapse earlier this year. Resources are spread thin; unemployment is at an all-time high. Covid-19 mitigation and suppression efforts have been fairly successful, but the threat still looms large as the pandemic provokes significant, potentially irreversible damage.
Amid Malaysia’s ongoing challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately falls on those who are most vulnerable, the Rohingya. Malaysia is obligated to adhere to customary international law, which includes non-refoulement, access to asylum, and basic human rights. Without adopting these necessary changes, Malaysia may continue to err while Rohingya people blamelessly suffer.
Christine H. Kim is an incoming graduate student at Georgetown University and a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.