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In Malaysia, why has solidarity turned to hostility for Rohingya refugees?

Rohingya pray on a street during Eid al-Adha celebrations Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 11 August 2019. EPA-EFE/Ahmad Yusni

Like many things in the modern world, a wave of xenophobic rhetoric against refugees in Malaysia lurched into the spotlight through posts on the internet. 

“Does the UNHCR card make them immune to the law? The time has come to cleanse this country of foreigners!” one Twitter user commented earlier this year.

They weren’t the only ones sharing that sentiment. Earlier this year, Malaysian social media users flooded Twitter and Facebook with hateful remarks in response to false claims in April that Zafar Ahmad, a leader of Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM), demanded citizenship for Rohingya refugees.

It was a sign of a major mood shift for the beleaguered refugee group in Malaysia. In recent months, the country has witnessed widespread fake news online about foreigners as virus importers, as well as authorities carrying out raids against migrant communities. So much so that in late November a lawmaker for opposition party Pakatan Harapan, Chan Foong Hin, called for a hate speech law in response to what he labelled the ruling party’s inaction to combat anti-Rohingya hate speech. 

For the country’s Rohingya refugee community – numbering 102,000 of Malaysia’s total 178,450 registered refugees – recent months have seen it become a hostile breeding ground for xenophobic sentiment. The rapid shift in messaging, from being regarded as welcome guests in an act of Islamic solidarity, to an unwanted nuisance, has left many wondering how the tone has changed so quickly. 

Rahman, a Rohingya refugee in Malaysia for six years, has deactivated his Facebook account due to the number of hate messages he received from online users. He expressed his concerns towards unfettered fake news and hateful comments that have spurred xenophobic sentiment. 

“Facebook does not moderate the content in Bahasa Malaysia, maybe they do not understand the context. We experienced online abuse both in Malaysia and Myanmar,” he said.

Backers of new hate speech legislation say the government is trying to dismiss growing hostility claims as so-called ‘fake news’, avoiding responsibility to counter the issue of rising anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Earlier in the year, a Harmony and Reconciliation Commission was tabled by Pakatan Harapan to deal with hate speech online, specifically to resolve interracial conflicts in multicultural Malaysia. The commission would have the powers to seek reconciliation between the antagonistic groups or the aggrieved parties without going to the authorities. 

It was later scrapped by the ruling Perikatan Nasional in August.

“This is a major step backward in the efforts in controlling hate speech,” Chan told the Globe. “The government had sidestepped my question on hate speech in Parliament and answered in a way that seems to suggest that any hate speech accusation in Malaysia is fake speech, and to deal with it in that manner.” 

The Malaysian government has sent mixed messages in regards to the Rohingya. On 27 April, Defense Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob called Malaysians to be “considerate” and “peaceful” and avoid claims that incite hate towards the Rohingya. 

A few days later, Home Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainudin made an official statement justifying border controls “to stop the intrusion of illegal immigrants”. He also emphasised that Rohingyas do not have legal status, in a far cry from Yaakob’s earlier sympathetic message. 

“In May, the government turned back boats carrying Rohingya refugees, leaving them trapped on the sea,” Rahman said, adding that he believed that these actions only intensified xenophobia. 

When discussing the topic, state-owned media leant on the fact that Malaysia is a non-signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore in the eyes of the law regards them as illegal migrants. In April, Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin only reinforced this.

“Rohingya nationals who are holders of the UNHCR [the UN’s refugee agency] card have no status, rights or basis to make any claims,” he said in a public statement. “The government does not recognize their status as refugees but as illegal immigrants.”

Many Malaysians lost their jobs and their lives were affected. They feel that they are unable to bear the additional burden and are no longer obliged to provide humanitarian aid for refugees

Chan believed the surge in anti-Rohingya sentiment has also been fuelled by a sense of resource scarcity among the public, heightened by pandemic conditions. Malaysia’s current unemployment rate is the highest in a decade at 3.9%, with more than 600,000 people unemployed. 

“Many Malaysians lost their jobs and their lives were affected. They feel that they are unable to bear the additional burden [of welfare, healthcare, housing] and are no longer obliged to provide humanitarian aid for refugees,” he said. “Other factors include competition with Malaysians in employment opportunity, national identity, import of culture.”

Regardless, Chan reiterated that Malaysians must not justify hate speech under the guise of upholding national sovereignty.

“Even though we do not welcome illegal immigrants and I retain the right to raise the deporting of illegal immigrants in Parliament, we should also not resort to hate speech that would lead to other acts of violence,” he said.

Rohingya pray on a street during Eid al-Adha celebrations Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 11 August 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/Ahmad Yusni

Adrian Pereira, director of North-South Initiative, a partnership focused on social justice and marginalised communities, cited wider structural problems as influential factors for rising anti-Rohingya sentiment.

“Without understanding human rights or refugees’ status cycle, Malaysians think that they will come and take a piece of the pie. This is further magnified because of the imposed lockdown and lesser opportunities for work,” Pereira told the Globe.

He also pointed to a combination of deep-seated racism and xenophobia in Malaysian society, which needs to be addressed through structural changes.

“Malaysians haven’t had the conversation on racism. When it comes to people we do not know from outside, we become xenophobic,” he added. 

Conversations around race, ethnicity and religion are considered sensitive issues – and potentially powerful weapons – in Malaysia due to the divisive nature of politics around it.

After Malaysia’s government upheaval earlier this year, which saw Pakatan Harapan’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed pushed from office by the end of February, the Perikatan Nasional coalition has cemented their nationalist stance, reinforcing their image as the Malay-Muslim majority’s political representatives. 

Critics have said that increasingly hostile government action towards refugees and migrants is viewed as the “prioritization of locals”, something that will likely prove electorally profitable for the ruling party.

The political instability in March that followed Mahathir’s ouster was, according to Pereira, an opportunity for politicians to gain influence by peddling anti-refugee sentiment and conducting migrant crackdowns.

“The same politicians who were pro-refugees before, they switched their tone. [Anti-refugee issues] are used as diversions and to pick up sentiment, demonstrating nationalist values,” he said. 

Both Chan and Pereira stated the importance of having a legal protocol to give refugees formal recognition and ensure transparent documentation.

“There has to be a two-way process, helping Malaysians understand their plight, and also for the refugees to understand Malaysian culture, beliefs, and politics,” Pereira said.

For Rohingya refugee Rahman, he hopes online users are careful and consider the humans that their posts impact.  “I feel sad for my people, and I wish my children would not go through the discrimination and persecution faced by the Rohingya community – be it in Myanmar, Bangladesh, or Malaysia.”

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