KUALA LUMPUR: Rohingya refugees in Malaysia said on Tuesday that they were “living in fear,” following a slew of online hate speech and xenophobia, prompting several local and international rights groups to urge the Malaysian government to take action.
“If I comment further about our plight, I am afraid that my community will face a greater backlash,” Rafik Shah Mohd Ismail, a 44-year-old Rohingya refugee and coordinator at the Human Aid Selangor Society, told Arab News.
Ismail came to Malaysia with his family when he was seven years old and is one of 153,209 refugees from Myanmar living in the country.
Today, with ongoing lockdown measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Rohingya refugees in Malaysia are unable to earn money to pay for food or rent.
“Many Rohingya have to send money back to their relatives and family members living in Myanmar and Bangladesh who are under heavy (pressure). Like it or not, they are forced to do hard labor such as scavenging scrap metal, cleaning the streets and sewers, or garbage-collecting,” Ismail said.
However, Ismail’s greater concern, he said, was the online hate campaign “misleading Malaysians against the Rohingya refugees.”
The issue first arose in early April, when a video of that allegedly showed a Rohingya community leader demanding citizenship rights from the Malaysian government surfaced online.
Soon after the clip was posted, online petitions and posts using dehumanizing and offensive language directed at Rohingya refugees appeared, with several community leaders and local NGO leaders targeted in the witch-hunt.
“The Rohingya community leader whose video went viral never demanded any rights in Malaysia, but (there was a significant backlash from) people in Malaysia, giving the impression that Rohingya people are demanding (citizenship). This worries me,” Ismail said.
For 27-year-old Rohingya refugee, Ziaur Rahman, the campaign is just “one of the many hurdles faced by the community, who have been suffering for decades.”
“We have no citizenship and have to flee all over the world. It is unimaginable what our lives will be like in the future,” he said, dismissing claims that the Rohingya were demanding citizenship as “falsehood.”
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Despite the campaign, Rahman told Arab News, “Many Malaysians are outstanding people and have been accommodating toward refugees.”
The growing threats of violence and increasing amount of hate speech online prompted 84 local and international non-profit organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights, to pen a joint letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Monday, urging him to take action.
“We recognize the important role that Malaysia has played in hosting refugees, including Rohingya refugees arriving from Myanmar and Bangladesh,” the letter said.
“However, we are concerned that your government has to date failed to adequately respond to the recent surge in ‘hate speech’ and violent threats being directed at the Rohingya population.”
The letter also called out various Malaysian officials, including the Minister of Home Affairs, for giving statements that would “heighten tensions and incite violence and discrimination against the Rohingya.” The letter urged the government to “step up efforts” and initiate policy measures in line with Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action.
The Rohingya are among the most persecuted communities in the world. Thousands have fled Myanmar.
Malaysia has not ratified the UN Convention on Refugee Rights, and thus does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees.
In recent operations by the Malaysian authorities in several areas known as hotspots for migrant workers and refugees, people who were unable to provide a UNHCR card were arrested as illegal immigrants.
Ismail said that, whenever a refugee is arrested, the entire Rohingya community is vilified, because “many Malaysians think (all) refugees from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh are Rohingya. But many of the refugees arrested by the authorities are not only Rohingya; they are Myanmar Muslims (or belong to) other ethnic groups, such as Indian Myanmar, Bangladeshi, Kachin, Chinese, and many more.
“For those that call for Rohingya to be repatriated, where should we go, when no country is accepting the Rohingya?” Ismail asked.