By Zan Azlee, Malaysiakini

COMMENT | Looks like Malaysia is back to its racist and unhumanitarian ways. In the last few weeks, it has been discovered that our authorities have turned away a Rohingya refugee boat that arrived on our shores. Apparently there were 200 people on board and Covid-19 was the reason given for turning the boat away.

The boat has drifted out to sea and now is in Bangladeshi waters (they have since been joined by a second boat that claims to also to be going to Malaysia). The Bangladeshi government is also denying them entry even though they have been regularly opening their land borders to allow Rohingyas in the refugee camp in Kutupalong.

Reports now say that a few dozens of those on board have died due to starvation and their bodies were thrown overboard by the survivors.

I understand that Malaysia is going through a pandemic and the whole country is suffering through a lockdown movement control order. Even our highly respected director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has, time and time again, mentioned that we have to continue to keep our borders closed in order to control the spread of the virus.
However, when an incident like this happens, where hundreds of refugees are attempting to escape an oppressive government that has a history of violent ethnic cleansing, what do you do? I say we need to be compassionate and allow them refuge on our shores. It is just the right thing to do even if there is a possibility that many of them could be infected with the coronavirus.

We are slowly but successfully managing the pandemic within our borders. The number of active infections is steadily dropping and the health ministry’s targeted testing has proven to be the reason for this drop. So what is the harm in helping those in need? We should be able to spare some resources for them.

These aren’t ordinary human beings who are traveling for leisure. They literally have nowhere to go. Just look at the boat that Malaysia turned away. They definitely can’t go back to Myanmar because torture and death could be waiting for them there. No other country wants to take them in. Even Bangladesh, one of the most Rohingya-friendly countries in the world, refused them.

Our authorities have proven that they can contain red zones in the country. If the refugees are allowed into our borders, quarantine them in a specific area, give them food and provide treatment. They are human beings who deserve the right to live freely, but who are unfortunate because of where they were born. That is not their fault.

I know that this is a very difficult ask because even in normal times without a pandemic, Malaysia has always turned a blind eye towards the Rohingya. We can make a lot of noise by holding public demonstrations in support of the Rohingya, type out passionate posts on social media condemning Myanmar, etc., but we aren’t even a signatory of the refugee convention.

Think about it. How are we even treating the migrant workers here during this pandemic (or even before)? We cage them in like animals or criminals. How are we treating the Rohingya, which reportedly are the largest group in the enhanced MCO zone in Selayang? Same thing. Cage them up and even build prison-like watchtowers to monitor them.

Realistically, I am not expecting my call to be heeded. But I would like Malaysians to at least be human. Put yourself in other people’s shoes who have it worse off from you. If you think having to stay home in lockdown during the fasting month is difficult because you can’t buy the variety of kuih-muih like you do every year, think about the refugees.

It’s the holy month of Ramadhan. If there is any period when we should be compassionate and thinking of others, this is the month to be doing it. If we can’t even do that, then I really hope we can at least reflect and feel very, very guilty about what is happening. Happy Ramadhan to all Malaysians.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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