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COVID-19 and Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia

Published 09 Nov 2021
Isabel Freudenstein

As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc in Malaysia, with September marking the deadliest month since the pandemic began, Rohingya refugees have become a scapegoat for growing frustration. The understandable health concerns of the pandemic and a rising sense of Malaysian nationalism created a ‘perfect storm’ to produce anti-Rohingya sentiments, which have continued into 2021. The newly formed Perikatan Nasional government, recently appointed by Malaysia’s king, used this to their advantage: it has relied on these conditions to legitimize their rule, leading to worse outcomes for Rohingya refugees.

The influx of Rohingya refugees into Malaysia was a result of the ‘genocidal-adjacent’ actions of the Myanmar government in 2017. Denied citizenship and unable to participate in society, the movement to Malaysia made for a logical sanctuary due to its geographic closeness and shared religious background. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s lack of formal refugee policy has prevented Rohingya refugees accessing refugee status, instead they are deemed illegal immigrants. By participating in the informal economy, Rohingya refugees before the catalyst of the COVID-19 pandemic were able to access a protracted visibility and an ‘imaginary’ form of citizenship.

During COVID-19, however, the precarious position of Malaysian refugees has moved from an ‘invisible other’ to a ‘threat’ to the health and wellbeing of Malaysian nationals. This disproportionately harms the Rohingya in Malaysia, who make up 90% of the Malaysian refugee population. Generally, the pandemic has worsened violence against women, as for every three months of lockdown measures, an additional fifteen million women and girls are exposed to gender-based violence. Within Malaysia, this harms Rohingya women, as the nature of refugee camps, gender norms, lack of gender-responsive facilities and access to services have led to an inability for Rohingya women to have their basic needs met.

Surveys conducted by global data and research analysis company, Mixed Migration Centre, indicate that gender has played a role in access to health services and life in Malaysia for Rohingya refugees. The reduced access to work has affected 83% of women, compared to 69% of Rohingya men, as men are more likely to be able to participate in society. This in turn directly impacts their access to health services, as only one quarter of Rohingya women have had the opportunity to get tested for COVID-19, whilst men were almost twice as likely to have been tested.

As the government pushes for increases in vaccination rates, Rohingya refugees risk arrest amid the outburst of anti-foreigner rhetoric. In March 2020, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, former defence minister and now deputy prime minister, announced that there would be no arrests based on immigration status. This ‘amnesty period’ has now ended, with more than 500 people arrested in immigration raids since June. Rising populist sentiment emphasises the foreignness of Rohingya people even as their Muslim counterparts in Malaysia share religious beliefs. The changing interests of the Perikatan Nasional government presents a shift in the nationalist sentiments of the nation and was also followed by the proliferation of anti-Rohingya messages and imagery from official sources. For example, the Immigration Department, posted on Facebook a poster headed, ‘Ethnic Rohingya migrants, your arrival is unwelcome’. The rise in hate speech has increased fear of deportation, arrest and detention, preventing Rohingya refugees from accessing asylum services, as 32% report a decrease in seeking assistance.

While the Malaysian government continues to emphasise the importance of vaccinations as they grapple with the fourth wave of the pandemic, the mixed messages for Rohingya refugees has prevented this safety-net for over 100,000 members of the community. As the death rate increases, it remains to be seen if the refugee population of Malaysia will be able to access health services afforded to full citizens of the nation.

Isabel Freudenstein is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney majoring in International Relations, Politics and History while she studies a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies in Politics and International Relations. She is currently in her honours year, writing a thesis on the changing nature of humanitarian intervention, examining the Responsibility to Protect norm’s development within a rising multipolar international system. Isabel is a writer for the university newspaper, Honi Soit, and formerly an intern with REA Group in their communications and sustainability team. Her core interests lie in the changing dynamics of the international system, norms of behaviour, gender and migration.

Isabel is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.