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 advocates 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 who had seen Malaysia as a welcoming country, particularly for Muslims, despite not being signed up to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Over the past few 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, Amnesty International has said.
A group of 31 Rohingya men who disembarked from a boat in April have since been convicted under Malaysia’s 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 last month, has been condemned as “cruel and inhuman” by Amnesty International, which has called for the decision to be overturned.
There is growing concern over the treatment of migrants and refugees in Malaysia, where mass raids were carried out in May.
One Yemeni, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said that they were imprisoned for weeks after immigration police stopped them on the street.
Although later freed because they were registered under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they are now too scared to leave home.
The prospect of being sent to detention centers, notorious for violence and illness, has become a most stark threat. At least 735 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the centers last month, almost 10 percent of the country’s total.
Refugees and aid workers have said 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,” the Yemeni refugee said. “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 reporters: “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 agonizing,” he said.
Malaysian officials have denied poor treatment in the detention centers.
Malaysian Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah said that positive cases from detention centers are isolated in hospitals, and those who have been in contact with these patients are quarantined in special facilities.
The raids that started in May followed a surge in xenophobia after Malaysia was criticized for sending boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees back to sea.
Almost 600 undocumented migrants were arrested in the first weekend. Authorities were criticized for rounding up residents and forcing them to sit on the ground without social distancing.
A refugee advocate who helps detainees access legal support said that victims they had spoken to included many with UNHCR cards, who were arrested by police indiscriminately rounding up foreigners.
The UNHCR confirmed that some had been arrested, but later released.
Malaysia does not officially grant refugee status, but hosts more than 170,000 UNHCR-registered people, mostly from Myanmar. Tens of thousands more stay informally, having arrived by boat believing Malaysia would offer safety and freedom to work.
More recently, Syrians and Yemenis have arrived, and Malaysia is one of very few countries that offers them temporary tourist visas.
A new wave of xenophobic attacks began this month, coinciding with the airing of an al-Jazeera documentary, which the government called “fake news.”
Six journalists who worked on the program are now being investigated for sedition.
Malaysia has threatened to punish foreigners accused of comments “aimed at damaging Malaysia’s image,” stripping one of al-Jazeera’s interviewees of his work visa and investigating advocates over Facebook posts.
The government has announced that foreigners would be banned from mosques when they reopen.
“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.”
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