By Carlos Sardiña Galache
Bangkok, May 1 (efe-epa).- The COVID-19 pandemic has increased xenophobia against the Rohingya living in Malaysia as the government pushes back to sea to boats with hundreds of people trying to reach its shores.
Around 100,000 refugees from this oppressed Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar live in Malaysia.
Last week, at least 350,000 people signed various campaigns on Change.org, which were later deleted, calling on the Malaysian government to expel all Rohingya from the country. There have also been several reported incidents of harassment of these refugees, among them a video that went viral of a Malaysian insulting a Rohingya gardener.
“The campaign is highly orchestrated with an onslaught of materials being generated to deliberately stir up reactions, anger, hatred and xenophobia,” Lilianne Fan, director of the NGO Yayasan Geutanyoe (Geutanyoe Foundation), which is dedicated to working with refugees, told EFE. “The campaign has generated a lot of fake news that plays on very sensitive issues, including that Rohingya demand Malaysian citizenship, that Rohingya come to marry Malaysian women… that Rohingya are potential terrorists.”
“These are not issues that are arising spontaneously, they are being generated by a hate campaign,” she added.
Fan believes that one of the factors in the uptick in xenophobia against the Rohingya is “insecurity about COVID-19,” of which 6,002 cases have been detected in Malaysia and 102 people have died, causing the closure of borders and strong containment measures which, according to Fan, have also caused the majority of Rohingya to lose their jobs.
Relatively prosperous Malaysia has for years been one of the preferred destinations for Rohingya fleeing the oppression they suffer in their country of origin, Myanmar. There the vast majority lack citizenship as they are considered “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh and they have suffered waves of violence for decades.
In Muslim-majority Malaysia, the Rohingya have found a safe haven, compared to their home country, and can find work in sectors such as construction, but their position is extremely precarious as most are not officially recognized as refugees and have to live as illegal immigrants in a society that often views them with suspicion.
According to Fan, the recent wave of racism points to “the urgent need for the government to continue to work on developing a legal framework and proper policies on refugees… (and) an urgent need to work together to improve refugee and host community relations, which have long been ignored.”
The recent hate campaigns against refugees began after the Malaysian Navy on Apr. 16 intercepted a boat with about 200 Rohingya approaching its coast and, claiming that “undocumented immigrants” could bring COVID-19, they pushed it back out to sea where it is still stranded with other boats also rejected by countries in the area.
That same day, another boat arrived in Bangladesh with 396 severely malnourished Rohingya on board after two months at sea, during which around 100 people may have died, according to Médecins Sans Frontières, whose staff interviewed survivors.
“We are not sure how many boats are currently stranded at sea. We are sure of two boats, but believe there may be a third one, and possibly more. As far as we know they all embarked in Bangladesh,” said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project NGO, which has spent years studying the migration flows of the Rohingya.
According to Lewa, there is no indication that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the smuggling of Rohingya in the Bay of Bengal, but it has served as an excuse for governments to reject them and, according to Amnesty International, there are some 500 Rohingya, including children, on boats stranded in the bay after Malaysia and Bangladesh barred them from entry.
The presence of abandoned Rohingya refugee boats at sea echoes a large crisis that occurred in 2015, when several boats with at least 10,000 Rohingya roamed the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea for weeks, some of which died at sea until the governments of Malaysia and Thailand allowed them to disembark.
Until then, and according to UN figures, between 2012 and May 2015, some 170,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state put themselves in the hands of human smuggling networks to flee to Malaysia or Thailand, but the authorities of those countries managed to dismantle these networks in mid-2015, so the use of these routes was reduced to a minimum.
At the time, it was estimated that a little more than 1 million Rohingya lived in Rakhine, but in August 2017, the Myanmar Army launched a violent military campaign against them after Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents attacked police and military posts.
The military operation, for which Myanmar has to defend itself against accusations of genocide before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, caused the exodus of some 725,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. There they continue to live in the world’s largest refugee camp complex. EFE-EPA