A group of Rohingya refugees who survived a treacherous journey at sea now face caning and seven months in jail after they were convicted under the immigration act in Malaysia, where activists have warned of an alarming rise in xenophobia and inhumane treatment of the migrants. Hundreds of arrests and a sharp rise in hate speech have shocked refugees and migrants.
Over recent months, Malaysia has been widely condemned for turning away boats carrying Rohingya refugees fleeing desperate conditions in camps in Bangladesh. Some boats were allowed to dock, but the hundreds of refugees onboard are understood to remain in detention, according to Amnesty International.
A group of 31 Rohingya men who disembarked from a boat in April have since been convicted under the Immigration Act, and sentenced to seven months in prison, while at least 20 have been sentenced to three strokes of the cane. Nine women are also facing seven months in prison, while 14 children have been charged and are facing jail terms. The sentencing, announced in June, has been condemned as “cruel and inhuman” by Amnesty International, which has called for the decision to be overturned.
The prospect of being sent to detention centres, notorious for violence and illness, has become a most stark threat. At least 735 cases of coronavirus were reported in the centres in June, almost 10% of the country’s total. Refugees and aid workers say detention conditions are cramped and unsanitary, and food is limited.
“It was a horrible situation, the treatment they subjected us to. They took us into the prison, it was small but with so many people, and so many people were ill … it was like we were animals,” said the Yemeni refugee. “There were a lot of Covid-19 cases … the ill, and those who weren’t, were all next to each other without separation.”
Another Yemeni refugee told the Guardian: “They put me in a jail cell for three days without food, without drink or even a toilet. Then they transferred me to a cell in a big prison where there were 200 people.
“I was in the prison and then we were taken out in handcuffs, all together, and they started beating us. Four of the guards beat us and then said we’re being released. The coronavirus and the beatings were agonising.”
UNHCR said it has not had access to Malaysian detention centres since last August.
Immigration raids tarted in May followed a surge in xenophobia after Malaysia was criticised for sending boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees back to sea. Almost 600 undocumented migrants were arrested in the first weekend. Authorities were criticised for rounding up residents and forcing them to sit on the ground without social distancing. A new wave of xenophobic attacks began this month. The government has announced that foreigners will be banned from mosques when they reopen. Refugee children are not allowed to attend formal schools, and rely on religious schools.
“The government is cracking down on migrants and refugees, instead of upholding everyone’s right to health during Covid,” said John Quinley, human rights specialist at Bangkok-based Fortify Rights. “The environment of fear and intimidation against migrants and refugees must end.”
Nur, a Malaysian activist, explained, “Every other day there’s new regulations and new targeted speech against the refugees and ‘illegal immigrants’.”