Xenophobia and COVID-19 Aid to Refugee and Migrant Communities in Penang.

AuthorTayeb, Azmil

On 18 March 2020, the Malaysian government announced a Movement Control Order (MCO) in an attempt to contain a rise in COVID-19 cases across the country. The MCO compliance rate was near-universal and the hashtag #kitajagakita (we look after us) trended as Malaysians from all walks of life came together to face the scourge of the pandemic. Amid these efforts, in mid-April, a rickety boat of more than 200 Rohingya refugees tried to land on the island of Langkawi in northern Malaysia. Ultimately, the authorities turned the boat away. The episode triggered a vicious wave of xenophobia among a broad cross-section of society, directed towards Rohingya refugees already staying in Malaysia. Prior to this, the Rohingya had been generally welcomed in Malaysia and had never encountered such rancour. The federal government actively supported this sentiment, so much so that current and former immigration and intelligence officers set up Facebook pages where the public could denigrate and report on Rohingya refugees (Facebook later took down these pages). (1) Angry calls emerged to deport them back to Myanmar or Bangladesh. The authorities went so far as to round up hundreds of Rohingya, along with undocumented migrant workers, detaining them in special facilities for the purpose of "containment". It was apparent to many Malaysians, including the federal government, that #kitajagakita only applied to citizens. Non-citizens, including refugees and migrant workers, were deprived of their livelihoods and were left to fend for themselves during the three-month MCO. Simply put, helping refugees and migrant workers during the MCO was not a popular policy, especially at the federal level.

However, pockets of humanity persisted amid the miasma of xenophobia that pervaded every part of the country during the MCO (and until today). In Penang, a concerted and well-organized effort emerged--supported to a certain degree by the state government--to help refugees and migrant workers. In this article we argue that despite the enormous challenge that the pervasive xenophobic sentiment among the general Malaysian public presented, this effort to provide aid to refugees, and to a lesser extent migrant workers, proved successful, particularly in comparison to other regions in Malaysia with similarly large refugee and migrant communities such as the East Malaysian state of Sabah and the Klang Valley area that encompasses Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. The success can be primarily attributed to the strong civil society network in Penang that identified early on in the MCO the looming humanitarian crisis among the refugee and migrant communities and managed to mobilize their resources before the start of the xenophobic wave in mid-April 2020. The fact that Penang is led by the coalition in opposition at the federal level was not a major factor...

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