UN Criticises Malaysia for Using the Coronavirus to ‘Roundup’ Migrants

Malaysian authorities have been rounding up and detained hundreds of undocumented people in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, in a move which has been heavily criticised by the UN.

According to statements from Malaysian officials, those who have been targeted (which includes Rohingya refugees) have been done so in efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, UN representatives have come forward to call out this practice, arguing that it breaches human rights and jepardises the health and wellbeing of those impacted.

Migrants face severe prejudice and discrimination across Malaysia as it is, with many of those seeking refuge in the country facing mistreatment from authorities and members of the public.

…many are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar – one of the most oppressed communities in the world.

According to reports, 586 undocumented migrants were forcibly arrested and detained after a raid in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital, on Friday. Those arrested were marched through the city by a group of armed police and placed in a detention centre.

The UN has said that this move will push more vulnerable people into hiding and stop them from seeking the healthcare and support they need during this difficult time.

Of those who have been rounded up, many are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar – one of the most oppressed communities in the world. The Rohingya face a vast amount of discrimination in Malaysia. They have been the subject of several propaganda campaigns on social media, which have blamed them for committing crimes and ‘taking over’ areas of the capital. Some of these have been circulated by Malaysian politicians.

Those arrested were marched through the city by a group of armed police…

Rohingya refugees, Malaysia coronavirus
Rohingya refugees are not recognised by Malaysian law. They have been the targets of propaganda and discrimination, and these supposed coronavirus measures push this community even further in even more danger.
[Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images, Amnesty]

As well as Rohingya refugees, police have also rounded up and detained children.

The UN has urged Malaysia to stop the practice of detaining migrants and release all minors who are currently detained. Representatives have warned, in addition to this being a breach of human rights, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in detention facilities will cause the virus to spread more rapidly.

[The Rohingya] have been the subject of several propaganda campaigns on social media. Some of these have been circulated by Malaysian politicians.

The body also criticised the practice on the basis that it would stoke fear and distrust in already-vulnerable communities.

“The fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable population groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment,” one UN statement reads.  “[This will have] negative consequences for their own health and create[…] further risks to the spreading of Covid-19 to others.”

However, Malaysia – which does not recognise ‘refugee status’ as a country – has back its decisions to arrest and detain those who cannot present the appropriate immigration documents.

The home minister, Hamzah Zainuddin, responded to criticisms from activists by reiterating that the Rohingya are considered “illegal immigrants” in the country, and went on to add that they “have no status, right and basis to present any demands to the government”.

…police have also rounded up and detained children.

But activists continue to push against these practices and call out the widespread mistreatment of the Rohingya people.

Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi, an activist from Malaysia and an ambassador of the European Rohingya Council, has said that prejudice and discrimination against this vulnerable group of asylum seekers have been rife in Malaysian attitudes and behaviours for some time.

“In Malaysia right now everybody is scared, anxious and worried about the situation because they can’t work”, she explained.

“They hear Rohingya boats are coming and perhaps they fear these people will steal their resources.”

Azmi’s words touch upon recent reports which showed Malaysian authorities were refusing to allow boats of Rohingya refugees to land under the premise that it would exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic.

To many, the government’s decision to effectively round up undocumented adults and children is the opposite approach to the one they ought to be taking.

“The fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable population groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment.”

UN statement

“Authorities in Malaysia […] in the capital [are] instilling fear in refugee and migrant communities” John Quinley, a representative from human rights organisation Fortify Rights, commended.

“What they should be doing is building trust and providing health services during this time”.

Written by
Luna Williams