Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia is going through a challenging time – the virus has taken many of our privileges away — but we must rise to it with humanity.
As the nation pulls together to save every life, we cannot let desperate people on boats – daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers – be abandoned to face death at sea.
For years, the Rohingya have faced hardship in Myanmar. They have been barred from hospitals and formal education. They have no citizenship. Many have fled to other parts of the region where they are safer.
In 2016 and 2017, waves of brutal military attacks on Rohingya villages have led to nearly a million people fleeing for their lives across the border, to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Despite the efforts of Bangladesh and the international community, the conditions in those refugee camps are also extremely difficult.
The year before that, in 2015, conditions in Myanmar were such that the number of Rohingya people fleeing in boats was already increasing and governments, including Malaysia, put lives at risk by pushing boats away back to sea.
We are seeing these terrifying scenes again today.
Last week, news emerged that dozens on a large vessel died after they were likely pushed back by Malaysia and left to languish for two months in international waters.
Citing the Covid-19 emergency, the Malaysian authorities then announced they had pushed out another boat, whose fate remains unknown.
The government is deploying aggressive military tactics against fishing trawlers carrying hundreds of desperate Rohingya people to prevent them reaching safe shores.
Difficult times are a time for humanity
Right now, Malaysians are understandably afraid and feeling insecure: the movement control order (MCO) has been ongoing for more than a month since it was imposed on March 18, and shows no sign of stopping.
The rate of infections, while steadily dropping, are still constant. Many Malaysians have had their source of income suspended during this period as well, only adding to their worries.
It is tempting to look inward and close our eyes to those in deadly danger.
These worries and fears have culminated into aggression towards the refugee community, essentially turning them into scapegoats and as if they were the source of the problem.
Around the world, refugees have often borne the brunt of such poisonous stereotypes, but the pandemic has only amplified this aggression.
Let’s be clear – these stereotypes are not just malicious; they are factually incorrect.
The notion that refugees are special carriers of disease is ridiculous, one mired in xenophobia and completely unsubstantiated.
As we are told over and over, this virus does not discriminate. You can catch it and spread it no matter who you are.
We cannot discriminate in showing our humanity, either.
The public’s attitude towards refugees is likewise fuelled by other lies: claims that refugees hold special privileges, monetary allowance and healthcare, thus depriving Malaysian citizens from accessing these services.
This is absolutely untrue. The MCO has been hard on refugees in Malaysia as well, especially those in overcrowded and unsafe detention centres.
Malaysia has saved Rohingya lives before – time for a regional response
But at other times, over the years, Malaysia has shown support for Rohingya refugees.
Just this month, Malaysia saved the lives of more than 200 people who were brought to shore on April 5, and promptly put into Covid-19 quarantine.
These humanitarian gestures are possible, repeatable, and they are the right thing to do.
They will also help protect us – ensuring that boats or people do not try to enter our borders undetected, without going through health screening.
The authorities should treat other boats in the same way, and save more lives.
As this pandemic has shown, no man is an island, and we cannot shirk our responsibilities.
But there is no reason Malaysia should address this challenge alone. Regional cooperation is needed.
The best way to encourage a regional response is to create it through leadership, and work with others so they play their part.
If you are a Malaysian who cares about Rohingya, then the change starts with you, too.
It is of paramount importance that we extend humanity and compassion to refugees and share correct information.
Now is the time to stand together, as humanity.
Changing minds is the biggest hurdle, but if we want to ensure that refugees are granted the rights and liberties and lives they deserve, including the right to work legally, and contribute further to our society, Malaysians who care about humanity must present a united front.
In 2015, we watched the Rohingya refugee crisis unfold before us, before acting.
In 2020, let us do something about it, and uphold our humanity.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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