Malaysia should be a safe haven for refugees in need

We refer to the events of April 16, 2020, when the Royal Malaysian Airforce and the Royal Malaysian Navy intercepted a boat carrying over 200 Rohingya near Langkawi. Those on board were merely given some food and water and forced back to sea, with little hope of finding the safe haven they so desperately needed.

The day before, the Bangladesh coast guard rescued nearly 400 Rohingya from a boat, with at least 30 more of their number believed to have already died at sea. The survivors were severely malnourished and dehydrated, having been on the ill-equipped vessel for nearly two months, reportedly having been turned away from Malaysia.

We view with extreme concern the act of pushing boats full of refugees back to sea, as it not only violates principles of international human rights law, but is also in conflict with Malaysia’s own history of generosity and solidarity with the Rohingya people.

Malaysia, like all states, is entitled to manage its borders as it sees fit, all the more so in these unprecedented times. But the measures taken must not result in shutting out asylum seekers in need of refuge, or forcing them to return to situations of danger.

The Malaysian authorities have sought to justify these inhumane and dangerous actions citing the Covid-19 pandemic, fearing that the refugees on board could bring more cases of the disease into the country. But the risks of the pandemic can be managed without condemning refugees to languish at sea.

In fact, Malaysia has already shown that a humane approach, which is also consistent with efforts to tackle Covid-19, is possible. Around 250 Rohingya refugees who landed at Langkawi on April 5 were isolated with a view to be tested for the virus, to ensure the protection of their health as well as that of the local population.

Although Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government still has obligations under international human rights law, including to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement. Like all people, refugees are entitled to their human rights, including the rights to life and health, which must be guaranteed without discrimination.

Recent events are a sad reminder of the humanitarian crisis in 2015, when thousands died at sea as Southeast Asian nations turned their backs on the Rohingya. While Malaysia and Indonesia did eventually accept some of the refugees, the deaths and suffering that took place as a result of pushback policies should be viewed with regret and a resolve not to repeat mistakes of the past.

The controversy surrounding the boat push back has also resulted in a backlash against the Rohingya community in Malaysia. There has been a serious and alarming trend of open xenophobia and hatred towards this already persecuted community, including threats, abuse and hate speech. This negative sentiment towards the Rohingya has been largely fuelled by online campaigns which use fear and disinformation to incite hatred.

We call upon the public not to be misled by unverified stories or social media posts which demonise refugees. The Rohingya community simply want to be able to live in peace and safety, having already been forced to flee their homes. We urge the authorities to continue to take all incidents of hate speech and disinformation seriously, and fully investigate threats made against the Rohingya community in Malaysia.

We remind the government that the Rohingya have been forced to make these dangerous journeys in search of safety because they are facing the most extreme forms of discrimination, persecution and violence in their home country, amounting to genocide and other international crimes. Covid-19 is no excuse to abandon Malaysia’s international obligations, or our history of support and kindness towards the Rohingya people and fellow human beings in need.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.