Earlier this year, Malaysia made headlines when a mass religious gathering at a Kuala Lumpur mosque became the largest known coronavirus vector in Southeast Asia at the time. Among the more than 12,500 Muslims who attended the services—most of them Malaysian and about 1,500 visiting from neighboring countries—were at least hundreds of migrants and refugees residing in Kuala Lumpur.
The Malaysian government asked attendees, irrespective of their legal immigration status in the country, to present themselves for free testing if they exhibited symptoms, and it assured that no arrests would be made. In April, the government announced that immigration operations would be suspended for the duration of Malaysia's lockdown—which began on March 18 and has been considerably relaxed in phases to continue until at least Aug. 31, with most economic sectors resuming early last month.
Since those promises were made, however, the government has backpedaled. In May, Malaysian authorities carried out at least four immigration crackdowns and arrested more than 2,000 undocumented migrants—including asylum-seekers and at least 98 children. The move has echoed a growing xenophobia amid the pandemic-related economic slowdown. Malaysia's health response to the pandemic has focused on treating all infected individuals without discrimination, but the roundups contradict that and could undo its progress.
Local and international human rights groups have vehemently criticized the mass arrests as counterproductive in fighting an unprecedented public health crisis. Detainees were reportedly cramped into small vans and deprived of face masks before being sent to Malaysia's immigration detention centers—which have been revealed to be overcrowded and unsanitary. Such conditions are ripe for the virus to spread and, looking ahead, the fear of arrest may discourage undocumented migrants from coming forward when they exhibit symptoms.
Malaysian authorities rounded up these migrants in so-called red zones that had been placed under what are known as enhanced movement control orders. These areas have posted higher numbers of infections and are typically walled off with barbed wire to prohibit anyone leaving or entering while all inhabitants are tested. Malaysia had seen how neighboring Singapore had gone from success story to cautionary tale in overlooking the susceptibility of its migrant population to the virus, and it had escalated its response to prevent the same fate.
Though optically draconian, such enhanced restrictions were a crucial part of the country's early lockdown and targeted testing approach, and they have proved effective in Malaysia's fight against the coronavirus. By late April, Malaysia announced that it had successfully flattened the curve of coronavirus cases and was in recovery mode, reducing Malaysia's R0 number, a measure of contagion, from 3.55 to 0.6. This, despite the fact that there was a political vacuum in Malaysia for a week in late February before a new government under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took over after a political coup.
Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the defense minister, stressed that Malaysia had the right to protect the integrity of its borders and that the arrests of undocumented migrants were needed to prevent the spread the disease to "our own innocent citizens" before the enhanced restrictions were lifted. But by turning a public health directive into "a tool to round up undocumented migrants," as Amnesty International Malaysia put it, and then carrying out mass arrests, Malaysia may undermine the progress it has made in combating outbreaks and risks reinforcing public prejudice against migrants.
The first warning sign came when at least eight Myanmar nationals deported in May tested positive upon arriving in their home country. This prompted the Malaysian authorities to ramp up the testing of detainees. They found that the virus has now infected over 770 detainees across four immigration detention centers, including some migrants picked up before Malaysia's national lockdown was imposed. After the infections from the mosque gathering, detainees form the second-largest cluster in Malaysia.
The source of the infections is still being investigated, but Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah said that though the detainees were screened before the arrests, the virus may not have been detected during its incubation period. Later, in the immigration detention centers, detainees would have easily infected other inmates in the confined and congested cells. The new cluster of infections found among undocumented migrants risks reinforcing prejudice against them, and he cautioned in a Facebook post: "Negative sentiments against detainees must not be amplified and must not be a catalyst for discrimination in saving lives."
For now, detainees who test negative for the coronavirus will be deported, while those who test positive will be sent to quarantine centers in Malaysia and treated before being deported. But despite the government's best efforts, there remains a possibility that testing could fail to pick up a positive reading due to the virus' incubation period and a detainee may export the virus to another country. Local rights group Tenaganita also urged that the deportations exclude refugees, because they would be put at risk of political persecution if they were returned to their home country.
On June 4, Malaysia saw the biggest daily increase in new coronavirus cases since the pandemic started—277, of which 270 were found in immigration detention centers. Since then, the number of new infections from that cluster has dwindled and the number of daily new cases among Malaysia's own citizens is down to low single and double digits. But migrant lives are not "acceptable casualties," in the words of local rights group Lawyers for Liberty.
Activists also cautioned that Malaysian citizens could have been put at risk. Glorene Dass, Tenaganita's executive director, said that "the constant cycle of people entering and leaving a center creates a perfect hotbed for spreading the virus to and from communities." Fortunately, this has not been borne out—one staff worker at an immigration detention center has reportedly been infected. But future outbreaks might be less forgiving.
Another serious challenge remains: Activists have long warned that mass arrests would deter undocumented migrants from coming forward for testing. "People will start hiding from the authorities. Even if they are sick, they are not going to come out and seek treatment," said M. Ramachelvam, a co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council's Migrants Refugees and Immigration Affairs Committee.
A week after the arrests, it was reported that at least nine people had fled from a quarantine center in Kuala Lumpur and at least 145 laborers had fled a construction site where workers had tested positive.
With the arrests, Malaysian authorities have played into the xenophobic backlash against undocumented migrants that has been building since March. Two million Malaysians may lose their livelihoods because of this pandemic, and unemployment spiked 42 percent in the first quarter of this year. As in many countries where resources are spread thin, migrants are accused of taking citizens' jobs, being a burden to their host country, and now spreading the virus. In May, about 78 percent of new infections involved migrant workers.
This local discontent, which often does not differentiate between those termed illegal immigrants, migrant workers, and refugees, has hit Rohingyas hardest. Misinformation and hate speech aimed at members of the minority group has proliferated on social media, culminating in several petitions to forcibly deport them, even though they face genocidal persecution back in Myanmar and are effectively stateless. Such sentiments were fueled by a video that purported to show a Rohingya demanding Malaysian citizenship and equal rights, as well as activist calls for the Malaysian government to continue allowing boats carrying refugees to disembark on Malaysian shores and refrain from deporting them. Refugee rights activists—who themselves have been threatened with physical attacks and sexual violence—also reported that businesses run by undocumented migrants have been shut down and property owners have been told not to rent to them. Foreigners were recently prohibited—for the time being, said Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri—from worshipping at mosques as they reopen tentatively, with one reportedly carrying a sign outside saying "We are not welcoming Rohingya."
To all this, there has been a groundswell of support in defense, with people sharing positive stories under the hashtag #MigranJugaManusia ("Migrants are humans too"), but it does not seem to have dampened the hate.
The backlash against the Rohingya is unusual for Malaysia, which for decades has tacitly allowed them to remain—though it refuses to legally recognize refugees. Nearly 180,000 refugees—including about 100,000 Rohingyas—hold identity cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that allow them to stay in Malaysia, and many have managed to find piecemeal access to employment and education. But their lack of formal status means they are always insecure and subject to the whims of public and political sentiment. They have sometimes been swept up and detained in immigration raids and only released after their status as refugees or asylum-seekers is verified.
Malaysian leaders have been sympathetic to the Rohingya plight in times past, but as public demand for a scapegoat has mounted, government rhetoric has also shifted. In early May, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin allowed that refugees could stay in the country on humanitarian grounds until they were resettled, but described Rohingya refugees as "illegal immigrants with a UNHCR card" who "do not have any status, right, or basis to make any claims on the government."
The conflict over the large number of undocumented migrants in Malaysia is a problem with deep roots that needs to be solved over the long term, but carrying out mass arrests seems a solution is short-sighted in this pandemic. The construction sites, factories, and plantations that are restarting operations as the lockdown eases are heavily staffed by migrants. There are an estimated 5.5 million migrant workers in Malaysia, 3.3 million of whom are working in the country illegally—mostly from Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. Malaysian health experts have said that the country does not have enough testing kits to test all of them, which makes their coming forward if they fall ill even more critical.
To rebuild trust, the government could reconsider the arrests and the detention of undocumented migrants and refugees during this pandemic. Rights groups propose alternatives, like offering amnesty and introducing rehiring procedures to formalize them, as they fill a gap in the economy for so-called "dirty, dangerous, and difficult" jobs that Malaysians tend to reject in the agriculture, manufacturing, and construction industries. (The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a local think tank, found that giving refugees alone the right to work would contribute over 3 billion ringgit, about $701 million, to the Malaysian economy.) Activists and health experts have also advised the government to look immediately into improving the conditions of detention centers so social distancing can be observed and alleviating the cramped housing conditions of migrant workers as a long-term solution.
Moreover, a humane approach to fighting this pandemic would do better not to focus solely on preventing coronavirus infections in saving lives. This pandemic has already hit undocumented migrants and refugees particularly hard, with many of them losing their livelihoods and shelter, and the fear of arrests and detention exacerbates their stress. Just this month, six undocumented migrants from Myanmar in Malaysia reportedly died by suicide.
So far, Ismail Sabri has said the Malaysian government will not yield to calls for a moratorium on arrests and detention. But on June 4, Noor Hisham, said that a committee has been tasked to review the protocol for holding undocumented migrants in immigration detention centers, and that Malaysia needs a "multi-agency, whole government, whole society" strategy to deal with migrant workers as a whole. It's not yet clear what this means, but it's a move in the right direction.
With hundreds of infections reported in the detention centers, the Malaysian government may have to rethink its approach and align the priorities of different ministries to respond to a still-ongoing pandemic that, in Noor Hisham's words, "knows no boundaries and does not favor any ethnicity and social status."
Emily Ding is a freelance writer and journalist covering stories animated by the politics of identity. Twitter: @emydeewrites
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.