In late February, some 16,000 people attended a religious gathering at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Among the attendees were large numbers of undocumented Rohingya refugees. This gathering proved to be a “hotspot” for Covid-19, with significant numbers of those in attendance developing symptoms. Seeking to stem the spread of the virus, the Malaysian government, together with UNHCR, sought to trace the refugees in attendance and ensure they were tested, and authorities such as the police commissioner in Sabah – a state which is home to large numbers of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons – encouraged undocumented persons who attended the event to come forward to be tested. Although the country’s Circular 10/2001 requires health care providers to report undocumented persons to the police, the country’s Defence Minister vowed that the government would not arrest anyone based on their immigration status who sought medical services in relation to Covid-19, and the Ministry of Health confirmed that Covid-19 treatment would be free for any foreigner displaying symptoms. Despite these assurances, some organisations such as MSF have noted that the country’s past heavy-handed treatment of migrants and refugees may leave many hesitant to seek assistance.
Aside from these steps, the Malaysian government appears to have adopted few measures to protect migrants and asylum seekers, such as those behind bars. The country’s immigration detention facilities are particularly notorious for their cramped, unsanitary conditions, but to date, no detainees have been released. Instead, it appears that authorities may be continuing to place people in detention. On 5 April, the country’s Maritime Enforcement Agency intercepted a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees. According to Amnesty International Malaysia, this group were placed in 14-day quarantine, and are expected to soon be moved into already over-crowded immigration detention facilities. Amnesty thus called on authorities to urgently provide alternative measures to detention – particularly for elderly detainees and those with underlying health issues – to take steps to prevent overcrowding, and to ensure the right to adequate health care.
- A child is tested for COVID-19 at a temporary testing facility set up by the Malaysian Ministry of Health in a community centre on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Al Jazeera (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/fear-refugees-malaysia-home-coronavirus-lockdown-200406014514452.html)
- K. N. Das and A. Ananthalakshmi, “Malaysia Seeks Rohingya for Coronavirus Checks after Mosque Outbreak,” The National Post, 19 March 2020, https://nationalpost.com/pmn/health-pmn/malaysia-seeks-rohingya-for-coronavirus-checks-after-mosque-outbreak-sources
- Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: Migrants, Stateless at Extra Risk from Virus,” 24 March 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/24/malaysia-migrants-stateless-extra-risk-virus
- E. Fishbein, “Fear Keeps Refugees in Malaysia at Home Amid Coronavirus Lockdown,” Al Jazeera, 6 April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/fear-refugees-malaysia-home-coronavirus-lockdown-200406014514452.html
- Amnesty International Malaysia, “Protect People in Detention at Risk of COVID-19,” 14 April 2020, https://www.amnesty.my/2020/04/14/protect-people-in-detention-at-risk-of-covid-19/
- Amnesty International Malaysia, “Hundreds of Rohingya Seeking Safety by Boat at Acute Risk from Coronavirus,” 9 April 2020, https://www.amnesty.my/2020/04/09/hundreds-of-rohingya-seeking-safety-by-boat-at-acute-risk-from-coronavirus/
- T. Arumugam, “Don’t Worry About Being Detained, Just Come Forward for Covid-19 Testing, Please,” New Straits Times, 22 March 2020, https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/03/577004/dont-worry-about-being-detained-just-come-forward-covid-19-testing-please
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in Malaysia,” https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/malaysia