Malaysia should not let a virus kill its humanity

Malaysia should not let a virus kill its humanity

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A boat carrying ethnic Rohingya migrants is detained in Malaysian territorial waters, Langkawi, Malaysia, April 5, 2020. (Reuters)

In the darkness that is the Rohingya crisis, Malaysia has stood as a ray of light and hope — a true example of Muslim solidarity when there is so little in the world today. But now it seems that this is changing, and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is being cynically used by disgraced politicians to play a sinister, nationalist tune, banking on people’s fears. 

On April 18, the Royal Malaysian Navy turned away a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya, men, women and children, citing the lockdown in place in the country in response to the pandemic. This came only two days after the navy provided these very people with food. This prompted Anwar Ibrahim, president of the People’s Justice Party, to plead with Malaysians to not lose their humanity. In a widely viewed social media address, Ibrahim compared the Rohingya refugees to the Palestinians, noting: “We should not lose our humanity in times of hardship. We should help them with their basic needs. Why do we support Palestine? Because its people were murdered, tortured and plundered. So it is for the same reasons we support the Rohingya.”

Those words proved darkly prophetic a mere few days later, when it was reported that a boat that had previously been turned away by the Malaysian navy had to be rescued by the Bangladeshi Coast Guard. What they found on board was harrowing: The boat had been run by people smugglers and, after Malaysia turned the refugees away, the 500 people on board began to starve and some 100 died. Their bodies were thrown overboard by the smugglers as the boat made its way back north. 

It is right and proper for Malaysia to be in lockdown to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in the same way that lockdown does not mean putting everyone back on planes when they land at an airport, it should not mean that any nation suspends international law and the norms of asylum on its shores. What is certainly required is that those arriving, both by air and sea, be put in quarantine for two weeks and monitored or tested for signs of the virus. Most countries already do this for all visitors and even returning citizens. There is no reason why Malaysia needs to treat the Rohingya any differently, before processing their asylum requests. This idea has also been supported by Ibrahim, who said: “I suggest we create a border area for them (the Rohingya) to settle down and, at the same time, urge the Myanmar government to compensate these people and pay the costs for this.” 

Cost is also not something that should be invoked as a consideration. Malaysia has graciously shouldered the cost of providing Rohingya refugees with the basics when they arrived in the past. Requesting them to stay in quarantine and providing them with the necessities while keeping them isolated would only be marginally more expensive. To counteract that, cross-border travel is already reduced everywhere in the world, and that includes the flow of Rohingya refugees to Southeast Asia. There are fewer refugees arriving as a result of the pandemic, so the marginally higher cost of properly handling those that do come is likely more than offset.

The only reason to turn against neighbors in need is if we want to scapegoat all ‘foreigners’.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The only reason to turn against neighbors in need — and against the good conscience of the Malaysian people — is if we want to scapegoat all “foreigners” because some have the opportunity to gain political capital from playing off people’s fears. What Malaysians are being asked by such politicians is to forget their humanity.

Malaysia is blessed to still have politicians like Ibrahim, who remind us about our humanity. More than ever, it is leaders such as him that we should pay heed to in these dark times. 

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​
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