Covid-19 and the Rohingya: Staying Home when One is Homeless


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MALAYSIA’S RESPONSE TO the refugee crisis amid the global Covid-19 pandemic has drawn sharp criticism, both on the national and international front. On April 16 the country made headlines when the Royal Malaysian Navy turned away a boat carrying 200 Rohingya men, women and children; the boat is still reportedly adrift at sea. Earlier in April, over 200 refugees believed to be Rohingyas, fled from either the refugee camps in Bangladesh or the resettlement sites in the Rakhine Province of Myanmar.1 This group, comprising 152 men, 45 women and five children, was sighted near Pulau Langkawi.

Since then, concerted calls to admit Rohingyas into the country have visibly strengthened, but so have the many Malaysians mounting protests2 against their entry. The Rohingyas’ internal displacement, they argue, is an issue to be handled by the Myanmar Government under its Citizenship Law Act 1982.

Be that as it may, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are the only ASEAN member states to host incoming refugees. With the exception of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that receives stateless persons from neighbouring countries, the remaining member states do not accept refugees.

At the time of writing, to limit the virulence of Covid-19, Malaysia imposed a nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO), which is currently in its fourth phase (until May 12); while a conditional MCO came into effect on May 4. For its containment efforts, the nation is doing the best it can. A slew of measures is introduced: locations identified as red zones, especially densely populated areas where migrant workers and refugees reside, have been fenced off under the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO). These residents have been tested for Covid-19, and food supplies are dropped off at the gate for pick-up.

The anger, stemming from the discomfort of turning
away people in need and levelled at the unrest and
conflicts in other countries even in these
precarious times, is justifiable.

On April 5 a clinic to screen people in the “high-risk and vulnerable categories” such as the Rohingya and non-citizens was set up in Selayang3, with free service and subsequent measures of quarantining and/or treatment for positive cases. While Malaysians returning from overseas are placed under a 14-day quarantine and are retested for the virus, before they are allowed to reunite with their families. Those who tested positive must self-isolate at home or at community hospitals, while those showing severe symptoms are hospitalised for treatment. Inter-state travel has also been banned and is subject to police approval. To date, Malaysia’s official Covid-19 figures stand at 6,298 confirmed cases; 4,413 recovered cases; and 105 deaths.4

For a country under partial lockdown, the worry persists that should Malaysia accept more refugees, boatloads will soon arrive. There is much trepidation about this as collectively, Malaysians are struggling to cope with the virus, taking the necessary precautions, living less sociable lives, worrying about the rising costs of living and lowering incomes. The anger, stemming from the discomfort of turning away people in need and levelled at the unrest and conflicts in other countries even in these precarious times, is justifiable.

Host countries are struggling with economic recession, unemployment, failed businesses; and its citizens are going hungry and losing their homes. It would, therefore, be unreasonable to accept boatloads of refugees. Yet, their arrival has opened up a chasm for Malaysia as it grapples on the one hand, with its sense of reasonableness, fear and its confidence in the containment efforts and on the other, its compassion for people in distress.

Escaping conflicts is a continuous process, and one that is sadly often overlooked. A breakdown in peace talks, natural disasters that precipitate conflicts, epidemics, acts of violence or sexual assaults, the drawing up of new legislations and elections – these are all classified under the “windows of atrocity risk”, and the resultant effect are people fleeing for their lives.5

The current pandemic is an instrument to gauge humanistic values. Pushing refugees back to the sea, untested for Covid-19, would certainly guarantee a swift and mass transmission of the deadly virus. So far, what we do know of Covid-19 is that it is invasive and indiscriminatory; and has 4.7 billion spores carrying its DNA weaponry. On a “viral chance”, everyone is susceptible to its infection. In Malaysia the states with the highest infection rates are Selangor, KL, Johor and Negeri Sembilan (as of May 4)6, with higher numbers recorded in urban areas.

But this devastation is unsuccessful in subverting the human spirit as we are now more interconnected than ever. The digitised world via mobile phones, computers and virtual meeting rooms for conversations and discussions to take place are keeping us moving, to do the work, to care for each other, to set up food brigades to help those in need, and to build up preventive and medical care systems to help the infected. In short, we are harnessing compassion and care for the betterment of humanity, believing that no one person in this world ought to be left without the basic necessities of food, water, shelter, medical health, education and electricity.

So why does the buck stop with refugees? Malaysia has in place standard operating procedures, a sound medical system, emergency protocols for the outflow of severe infections and enforcement officers on the ground to maintain law and order; and since it is already hosting refugees, perhaps there can be scalability in dealing with those in need.

A Breakdown of Refugees in Malaysia

Malaysia has 178,990 registered refugees and asylum seekers; 154,080 are from Myanmar comprising 101,010 Rohingyas, 22,810 Chins and 30,250 Others.7 Currently, 80% are from Myanmar and the rest are from Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq.8 Some of these refugees are also asylum seekers – 24,900 in total, including 6,660 Pakistanis; 3,680 Yemenis; 3,290 Somalis; 3,290 Syrians; 2,590 Afghans; 1,830 Sri Lankans; 1,270 Iraqis; 790 Palestinians; and those from other countries. Of this number, 68% are men, while 32% are women. Almost seven out of 10 are men and boys, and 46,520 are children aged 18 and below.

There are refugees in every state, but no refugee camps. Most live in the Klang Valley and many are cramped into one- or two-bedroom low-cost flats. They have better access to sanitation and their other needs are met with informal work, donations for food, rentals and utilities.9

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention10 (CSR51) which defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. However, Malaysia is recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for hosting refugees and is given support by the government, private sectors and NGOs for its work.

UNHCR helps in investigating and processing identity cards (ID), repatriation processes, ensuring basic rights to food, shelter, water, sanitation and health, and developing employment opportunities or self-entrepreneurship. Too often refugees remain in detention camps with many restrictions placed on their movements. Every year, UNHCR Malaysia is able to register 35,000 refugees in the country, which means that refugees can carry an UNHCR-verified ID card, making it easier for them to find work legally,11 and not be exposed to arbitrary arrests.

To handle Covid-19, UNHCR is appealing for US$255mil to curb the risk and lessen the impact of the outbreak for the various communities, while the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan is seeking US$2.01bil.12 These funds can also filter down to Malaysian partners.

What Needs to be Done

In its fight against Covid-19, Malaysia is encouraged to strike a balance between finding its compassion index and being confident in the containment measures it has so far taken. And as it reassesses citizens’ socio-economic backgrounds, brought to light by the pandemic, it would be pertinent to bear in mind that the housing of vulnerable communities – the poorer Malaysians, migrant workers and refugees living in cramped and unsanitary dwellings – is in need of a long-term policy approach. If the government is committed to taking care, in a schematic and systematic manner, of society’s lowest rung; the rest of the population can also benefit as each person wants to be empowered to have their own livelihood.

In Southeast Asia there are 523,592 refugees and asylum seekers, of whom 500,364 are from Myanmar. Other refugees are from Sri Lanka (4,786); Afghanistan (4,282); Pakistan (3,077); and Others (11,083).

ASEAN, too, has to step in and refrain from citing sovereignty when its people – particularly the Rohingya – are being persecuted and deprived of their dignity. As every country in ASEAN is grappling with the virus and managing their borders, it leaves vulnerable communities such as the refugees and undocumented persons out in the cold, especially if they have been smuggled and trafficked. The recent ASEAN Special Summit on Covid-19 has reassured that “no one” would be left behind and that every country has a health protocol of 14-day quarantines, temperature checks and the availability of Covid-19 screenings. Following the Bali Declaration 2016, processes were outlined at the regional level to ensure that refugees would not be left stranded in the seas as it has happened in the past.

There are measures in place to contain Covid-19 infections; in fact, measures were already put in place pre-Covid-19 to medically screen refugees and migrant workers. But the challenge remains to lose the fear, to set thresholds on accepting fleeing refugees, to share the load of hosting refugees at the regional level, and as a region, to ask of Myanmar to work on its peace and conflict resolution. It is time to lead people in finding their care, compassion and respect for each other.

A breakdown of refugees and asylum seekers residing in Malaysia:



Kuala Lumpur
















Negeri Sembilan








Braema Mathi is a visiting senior research fellow at Penang Institute. She is from Singapore and she loves the hills, the rivers and trekking – all of which are plentiful in Penang.

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