April was a cruel month for the Rohingya. With governments across the Southeast Asian region beginning to clamp down on civilian movement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the poor and the marginalised were always going to be in the firing line.
While authorities in Bangladesh began encircling the now sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar and looking to cut them off from the outside world, Malaysia announced it would be stepping up its maritime patrols to prevent illegal migrants from entering the country.
Malaysia had been in lockdown since March 18, and agencies defending national borders were under strict instructions to plug any gaps.
Yet, on April 4, a fishing boat of more than 200 Rohingya refugees managed to make it to Langkawi Island, a stone’s throw from the Thai border, much to the consternation of the authorities, who now had to process the new arrivals.
Barely two weeks later, another boat carrying more than 400 people was rescued off the coast of Bangladesh.
The situation was dire.
At least 30 people (some witnesses claimed the number was more than 50) had starved to death and been thrown overboard. The survivors alleged they had been at sea for more than two months, having been repeatedly turned away by Thai and Malaysian authorities and there were other vessels unaccounted for.
The sorry tale highlights a festering human-rights wound for the region.
For the 1 million or so Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, life is so bleak they will pay smugglers a small fortune to put them on a boat that is barely seaworthy and ferry them to Muslim-majority Malaysia, believing they will find refuge with their brethren in religion.
You would think that — after all the noise Malaysia has made at the United Nations about the plight of the Rohingya, going out of its way to point the finger squarely at the Myanmar government — the Rohingya would find a safe haven here.
But Malaysia does not want them, even if – according to U.N. figures – it does house 100,000 Rohingya.
Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and, as such refuses to grant asylum on that basis, regardless of religion.
Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s knew this and decided that Singapore or Hong Kong were the better options for sanctuary.
Yet, the Rohingya keep coming in their thousands, knowing they have to risk months at sea and a strong chance they will never make it at all, yet clinging to the belief that a better life awaits them in Malaysia.
Even if they survive the journey to Malaysian waters, the authorities are in no mood to take them in and will turn boats away if they have not made landfall.
Over the years, there have even been reports of Malaysian maritime agencies towing boats in distress out of their waters and abandoning them, contrary to the Law of the Sea.
Now, with a global killer on the loose, the situation for Rohingya in Malaysia is at a tipping point.
As Malaysia does not recognise refugees, it does not accord them any status. They have no rights to education, healthcare, welfare, legal recourse, employment or even state aid.
The government says it is a “humanitarian” gesture to allow them to stay within its borders while the United Nations High Commission for Refugees processes them and moves them on to a third nation willing to accept them — a process that can take decades.
Until then, they are often prey for Malaysia’s black economy and criminal underworld.
Now with a lockdown biting into the economy, Rohingya have become a scapegoat for yet another national problem.
Social media accusations have flown back and forth between Rohingya and Malaysians for years, but events have taken a nasty turn in recent weeks after one Rohingya was alleged to have demanded full Malaysian citizenship in a social media post.
Local Rohingya leadership and civil society groups immediately distanced themselves from him, saying he did not speak for the community. He also later complained the message had been faked.
It did little to stem the response, the community and groups helping them have been subjected to an onslaught of hate. Leaders say their personal details — including pictures of their homes and cars — have been shared many thousands of times in viral messages.
They have also received threats of rape and murder.
Local commentators note that, in heated exchanges, many messages from Rohingya have been fabricated or deliberately mistranslated to throw fuel on the fire. Meanwhile, some of the most vicious comments have come from women.
The police say they are investigating the threats but do not seem to be doing so with any great zeal.
Meanwhile, as the arguments went back and forth, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has weighed in, reiterating the country’s stance on refugees.
Moreover, he said there was no evidence of any civil society group officially registered to represent the interests of the Rohingya. As such, any organisation doing so was illegal and subject to prosecution.
This matter of fact manner in which a minister tries to slam the door shut on an argument by nullifying one party in such a dismissive way is not new.
Some would say this was the government giving tacit approval to the hate messages but more likely trying to deflect mounting criticism of its handling of the national lockdown — one more in a seemingly endless stream of embarrassing blunders in its two months in office — by appearing on the surface to be a government that supports its people.
The Cabinet had been taking a lot of flak in recent weeks, so any kind of respite would have been welcome.
The media and ordinary citizens have repeatedly complained of food shortages, but these have been due to mismanagement of the supply chain and the lockdown, as opposed to actual lack thereof.
Yet, it did not stop Malaysians, early on in the lockdown, pointing the finger at the Rohingya for taking food aid that they thought should otherwise go to locals — an accusation the government did nothing to dispel.
So, when another opportunity to deflect attention elsewhere, who better than the Rohingya to provide the relief?
It is, after all, the weakest section of society with no real means to fight back and it keeps the public’s attention off affairs of state. For now.
Yet, given the frequency of ministerial howlers to date, it will not be long till the next scandal — and no doubt the next excuse to point the finger at the Rohingya.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.