Handout photo taken and released on April 5 by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency shows a wooden vessel carrying suspected Rohingya migrants detained in Malaysian territorial waters off the island of Langkawi. Photo: AFP / Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency

On April 16, a boatload of 200 Rohingya refugees arriving on the Malaysian coast were instantly turned away by the Malaysian Air Force, refusing to let them off the boats and escorting them back to the sea, with some food in the name of “humanitarian aid.”

Malaysia has been under a strict lockdown since March 18 in an effort to slow the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees detentions and prisons, over the past few weeks has won plaudits for enforcing tough measures to punish violators of the Movement Control Order (MCO), with most of the arrested individuals being foreigners. 

This comes as Rohingya asylum seekers have been accused of causing the first wave of Covid-19 infections in the country from a mass religious gathering at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur in late February. Thousands of Muslims attended the event, followed by a media frenzy that led to falsely inflating the number of Rohingya attendees from the now-verified count of 200 to 2,000. 

While the Malaysian Army claimed to have refused asylum for the greater good of the nation to avoid further transmission of the virus, 200 human beings seeking sanctuary from the well-documented atrocities in Rakhine state are placed at a much higher risk, of the vessel capsizing or the Myanmar military torturing the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority group. 

Mounting fears

Particularly hard-hit are asylum seekers in the Rohingya community. More than 170,000 of them have sought asylum in Malaysia, and the government has long prided itself on protecting and assisting their integration. But in this major health crisis, the government is falling short on providing them the necessary means to minimize risks of catching the infection or dying of food shortages, especially for those detained. 

Basic living conditions for refugees could result in more clusters of infections, according to Faisal Islam Muhammad Kassim, president of Rohingya Society Malaysia (RSM), who is a refugee himself. 

Kassim fled Rakhine state in 2010 during an escalation of what the United Nations has called an ethnic-cleansing campaign. Three years later, he sought asylum in Malaysia. After volunteering as an interpreter for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), he became a volunteer in RSM and was later elected president in the organization.

“Rohingya refugees initially didn’t hear about the lockdown and Covid-19 until we translated and sent them video messages to inform them better,” Kassim said. The false trail of stories that stemmed from the February religious gathering caused grave anxiety among the community and for a while, the pushback from Malaysians to get rid of them was deeply worrying, he said.

Of the 200 refugees, only a handful have tested positive for the virus. Because of fears of arrests and deportations, surrendering to the authorities was a tough decision to make. “The government vaguely said that they’ll be unharmed and it took a lot of urging from us to push them to go for testing,” Kassim said. 

Horrible conditions behind bars

Zahid (not his real name), a Rohingya refugee with the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign (PSHTC), describes his own experience in detention centers as inadequate and negligent. 

“They don’t even have enough medicine to treat people with the common flu, how will they identify and take measures to assist people showing flu-like symptoms in this pandemic?” asked Zahid, explaining the lack of soap and water available when he was imprisoned in four detention facilities in Malaysia.  

If someone is found sick, medical personnel provide painkiller drugs. But Zahid recalls that being allowed medicine doesn’t come without rigorous interrogation and, on some occasions, torture from guards. 

“Detainees do forced labor and don’t have the right to speak to their families outside. The cases we’ve heard are worse than those from prison inmates,” Zahid said. 

Refugees held in detention centers are virtually uncontactable, with no definite hearing dates announced. One case of a Rohingya refugee detained several months ago has been reported to RSM and the UNHCR, but all interventions have been halted until the end of the lockdown, Kassim says. 

“Even the UN can’t help with their release. The situation is really bleak and a lot of us are helpless,” Zahid said. “We know that they’re facing horrible conditions behind bars, which makes us think about how they’re doing a good job when they can’t treat us like equals when our only enemy is the pathogen.” 

Calls to walk the talk

Globally, the position on the overcrowded and crammed conditions in detention cells is unanimous. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a statement of caution to governments on the decrepit living conditions, not the individuals, that raise infection clusters. 

“People there may already have compromised immune systems because of tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS or other chronic conditions like diabetes. That means you’ll see a higher mortality rate in this prison population,” the statement reads. 

The Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment on possible improvements of health policies in detention or a presumption of release in the wake of the outbreak. 

In the last two months, implementing actionable plans to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak in detention centers has not been on the government’s agenda, as the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) noted in a press statement

“It’s the interest of the Malaysian society as a whole that everyone be able to freely move around and not be detained or arrested for any reason to enforce the order,” SUHAKAM commissioner Jerald Joseph told me. 

Echoing Kassim’s point about the reluctance of getting tested for fear of arrests, Joseph believes that even though authorities haven’t explicitly issued arrest orders for refugees, they haven’t ruled it out either. Human-rights organizations continue to pressure the Malaysian government to take action to speed up recovery and a return to normalcy. 

“This is the moment the government must tell foreigners especially the hardest-to-reach vulnerable groups that we’re all battling the Covid-19 spread, not them,” Joseph said. “They should work in partnership with community-based groups on the ground so good health and sanitation reigns supreme.” 

Fatima Qureshi

Fatima Qureshi is a Pakistani-Turkish journalist born and raised in Hong Kong. Currently based in Malaysia, she is a communications program officer for Musawah, a global Muslim women's movement. She has written and produced stories on current international affairs and under-reported social issues with a sharp focus on feminism, power politics and immigration.