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Malaysia must not let a virus kill its humanity

  • Published at 02:27 pm May 3rd, 2020
Malaysia Rohingya
File photo: A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters on April 5, 2020 Reuters

We cannot allow xenophobia and pseudo-science govern our policies

In the darkness that has been the Rohingya crisis, there have been few glimmers of hope for over 1 million displaced refugees. Malaysia, which now hosts over 140,000 Rohingya refugees, has been one of the few countries, like Bangladesh, which have shown leadership in assisting in this humanitarian crisis, as well as calling for a multilateral effort to resolve the underlying crisis.  

However, that does seem to be changing. In Malaysia, which has been on strict lockdown since March 17, the Covid-19 pandemic is being cynically used by many politicians to play a sinister, nationalist tune, playing on people’s fears that outsiders are the main vector, spreading disease and stealing limited resources to help the country cope with the economic impact of lockdown.

On April 17, the Royal Malaysian Navy turned back a boat seeking to land on Malaysian territory, carrying around 200 Rohingya men, women, and children. The navy cited the lockdown order which bars any foreign vessels from landing on its territory. This came only two days after the navy provided these very people with food.

This prompted Anwar Ibrahim, president of the PKR, to plead with Malaysians who have voiced increasingly hostile attitudes against Rohingya refugees on social media to not lose their sense of humanity.  

Those words proved darkly prophetic a mere few days later, when it was reported that a boat which had previously been turned away by the Malaysian Navy was eventually rescued by the Bangladeshi Coast Guard.

What they found on board was harrowing: That boat had been run by people smugglers, and after Malaysia turned the refugees away, the 500 people on board began to starve, and some 100 died and were thrown overboard by the smugglers as the boat made its way back north. 

It is right and proper for Malaysia to be in lockdown to manage the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But in the same way that lockdown does not mean putting everyone back on planes when they land in the country at an airport, it should not mean that we suspend international law and norms of humanity on the shores.

What is certainly required is that those arriving, both at airports and on the sea shores, be put in quarantine for two weeks and monitored or tested for signs of the virus. Most countries already do this to all visitors and even returning citizens. There is no reason why we need to treat the Rohingya any differently.

Cost is something that is being invoked as a consideration -- particularly with the collapse of oil production. Kuala Lumpur has generously shouldered the cost of providing Rohingya refugees with the basics when they arrived in the past.

Requesting them to stay in quarantine and providing them with the necessities whilst keeping them there would only be marginally more expensive. To counteract that, cross-border travel is already reduced everywhere in the world, and that includes the flow of Rohingya refugees to our shores. There are fewer coming as a result of the pandemic, so the cost should not be a burden which Malaysia is unable to bear.

Understandably, this argument may not suffice for many Malaysians who are now also going hungry due to food security. That is why Dr Anwar Ibrahim’s suggestion of restitution from Myanmar, not just for the current company of Rohingya, but for those already settled in Malaysia, should be further explored by the government.

But for the immediate future, it is imperative for Malaysia to share this burden and seek financial assistance from the OIC, UN, and other donor countries.  

It seems that the only real reason to turn against our neighbours in need and against the good conscience of the Malaysian people is if we want to scapegoat all “foreigners” because some have the opportunity to make some political capital from playing off people’s fears.  

Cue Najib Razak, riding on the white horse of xenophobia and pseudo-science, to cast himself as the “saviour of the nation,” against the existential threat of a few hundred wretched refugees. Though if he wanted to save the nation, he would do better to return some of the money he stole from it.  

Of course, it is perfectly understandable that Najib Razak will latch onto this issue. He must latch onto any issue that shores up for him some degree of political power which might help him insulate from the normal consequences of justice for his crimes against the nation.

If anyone other than such a powerful politician had done what he has done, they would already be languishing in some kind of Dark Hole of Calcutta, not being allowed to spew xenophobic nonsense on Facebook for political convenience.

What Malaysians are being asked by the likes of Razak is to forget their humanity. But, as always with Razak, this is not asked for the benefit of Malaysians. Only for his own benefit. 

Malaysia is blessed to still have politicians like Anwar Ibrahim, who remind us about our humanity. More than ever, it is the latter kind of leader that we should pay heed to in these dark times.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the director of the Displacement and Migration Program at the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst: 2016).

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