Challenges of Perception for Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia: The Impact of Social Media and COVID-19
Interview with Lilianne Fan, International Director of the Geutanyoe Foundation

November 27, 2020

Lilianne Fan is the International Director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to work with and empower refugees and vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia, as well as chair of the Rohingya Working Group in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network. Ms. Fan spoke with SPF about the ongoing challenges facing Rohingya refugee populations in Malaysia in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of social media on perceptions of refugee groups, as well as areas for further collaboration and policy development by local, national, and international actors. Excerpts have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Could you give us an update on COVID-19 situation in Malaysia, particularly as it pertains to the Rohingya refugee population?
 
Malaysia is a country that is extremely diverse and has a large number of foreigners, some of whom are migrants and some of whom are refugees. The Rohingya refugees are the largest group of refugees in the country. Around 90% of the refugees in the country are in fact Rohingya. It was really important to ensure that all refugees and all migrants, in other words all people in Malaysia who don't speak the national language, had access to information about how to get treated for COVID-19.
 
This was challenging because there's a lack of clarity on the status of many refugees as well as many migrants, a large number of whom don’t have proper documentation or have fallen out of proper documentation. Most refugees are also here in a kind of grey area, because while Malaysia is increasingly respecting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card as a document that grants a bit of protection for refugees, Malaysia doesn’t legally recognize this as an official status since it has not signed the Refugee Convention.
 
Therefore, there was a lot of fear in the refugee community about even coming forward until the government issued very clear guidelines and clear policies. This came in the form of a directive from the Ministry of Health, which said that any foreigner who has symptoms of COVID-19 is entitled to free testing and free treatment. This showed that the government’s key concern was really to control the spread of the virus, which was a very intelligent move taken by the Malaysian government.
 
The information about that policy took some time to get out to the various populations and a lot of work was done by UNHCR and NGO partners working hand in hand with the Ministry of Health to make sure those messages were getting out in the necessary languages. The messages to Rohingya refugees, who do not use a written language, had to go out in audio or voice form, so it was very important to make sure they were reaching the right methods of circulation.
 
As the COVID-19 situation progressed, the government also started to become a lot more concerned about controlling the situation of undocumented migrants arriving in the country, including a few Rohingya boats that had left from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh and had started to arrive between late March and early June. This triggered reactions both by social media and by the government.
 
The government started to issue very strong statements about not allowing boats to land, even though they did actually facilitate a few cases that were disembarkation with the understanding that as much as Malaysia is still very concerned about the situation of the Rohingya and the larger situation of Rakhine State, particularly under this COVID-19 context, it’s just not possible anymore to treat Malaysia as if it’s a kind of destination country for refugees.
 
The government also began tightening the borders. That went hand in hand with an intensification of the immigration department’s operations to identify undocumented migrants. As soon as the movement order restrictions for COVID-19 were lifted, in many areas we saw the authorities conducting sweeps to confirm who had documents and who didn’t have documents. Luckily, most UNHCR card holders were not taken into detention, but there were many people who don’t have UNHCR cards, who had documents that had expired, or who were seeking asylum but had not yet been processed by UNHCR or received documents. Many of the undocumented migrants who fell in this gray area were then taken into detention, and we started seeing was an increase in cases of COVID-19 in the detention centers which was extremely worrying.
 
Understandably, immigration authorities have concerns about the levels of undocumented migrants in the country, but I think these operations could’ve been done at a different time or in a way that actually didn’t put people at more risk of contracting the virus.
 
What kind of emerging trends have you been tracking on social media?
 
As these operations started increasing, the sentiment from the public, particularly on social media but also in real life, started to rise against undocumented migrants, and that has also had an impact of refugees, particularly the Rohingya refugees.
 
When the boats started arriving, there was a sudden and very intense campaign of xenophobia and aniti-Rohingya rhetoric that emerged on social media, including the spread of a lot of fake news about the Rohingya. Many very sensitive issues were brought up very deliberately to stir up more hatred toward the Rohingya in what was essentially a hate campaign. Many civil society groups started trying to work together to take those campaigns down, however every time one of these campaigns would be taken down, more would come up with lots and lots of followers. It seemed very orchestrated.
 
The impact on public opinion was actually very real because the concern about undocumented migrants became mixed in with concerns about COVID-19. In reality, blaming migrants for COVID-19 is clearly something that is extremely unfair. The virus spreads from person to person very easily and it’s not responsible to make the accusation that it just comes from one particular group of people. This blame game has been very dangerous, but unfortunately it’s been something that has become quite popular in Malaysia amongst certain groups.
 
The impact on the Rohingya has been very pronounced as well. Many people from the Rohingya community became very worried about being identified or being harassed randomly on the street, which did happen a number of times. I think underlying all of this are some very real issues that need to be addressed, and that is one of the things that we in the Geutanyoe Foundation are really interested in engaging with.

We feel that the rhetoric and the hate speech and the campaigns against the Rohingya would not really have resonated if there were an ideal situation where the Rohingya community and other refugees were living in very close interaction and in social cohesion with the host communities. Malaysians would not have asked all these questions and perhaps would not have believed a lot of the fake news that was being spread.
 
The research we conducted with Rohingya refugees and those communities through the support of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation indicated that some of these issues that were coming up during this hate speech campaign in fact were already there before the COVID-19 pandemic and before these campaigns started arising.
 
The issues that came up in our research tend to be very practical day to day issues among neighbors that I think are quite common in most societies. These include feeling a bit insecure about not knowing the language of your neighbors or not feeling that they understand your language or culture. There are cultural norms in the community, particularly here in the Malay community, that are very important and subtle.
 
The other issues we found are basic things like hygiene within the community. There are different types of hygiene practices, different levels of awareness and many communities feel that amongst the Rohingya they don’t have a similar level of education related to hygiene. This issue came up a lot in the research that we conducted and also was reflected in some of these social media campaigns and comments that were being generated online as well.
 
One thing that is a bit hopeful is that these are not issues that are all entirely unresolvable, but instead are issues which any neighborhood or community can face. On that level I think there is a way to bring community closer together.
 
Another issue we found in our research pertained to economic livelihoods. The COVID-19 situation has made particularly vulnerable communities even more vulnerable, and communities that were not vulnerable before have been exposed to a lot more vulnerability. Many people haven’t been able to get work, many people have lost their jobs, and many people have used up their savings.
 
But again, I certainly feel that given the conversations we’ve had and the work we’ve been doing with the government, civil society, and the refugee community, that there’s a way to work through those issues as well. It’s not about the government not understanding that refugees need to work. They do understand that refugees need to work, but they would like to regulate it and ensure that its very clear that these are the sectors where refugees need to work.
 
There are lots of ideas and there are committees working on this looking at what's the best way to go forward, but as of today we still don’t have a clear policy which is official yet on refugee working rights. It’s a very challenging time, and I think that it definitely needs a lot more work and attention from all the various stakeholders who are involved in trying to advance the situation.
 
What to you are some of the main remaining challenges that face the community and government in terms of trying to integrate these societies into the community, and what steps are you hoping to see from the government to resolve these issues?
 
One of the things which I think nobody should take their eye off is that this crisis is something which originated from Myanmar and the solutions will come from Myanmar. I think one of the first things that the government really needs to focus on is to increase the level of attention on this issue at a foreign policy level.
 
I think that having that basic understanding or at least commitment at the regional level with Myanmar, whether it’s done through an ASEAN platform or bilaterally or just with a few affected states, is extremely important in order to have realistic planning and go beyond grandstanding and aspirational talk in ASEAN. The foreign policy level of attention to the situation needs to be stepped up, and we need to keep that as the ultimate goal, ensuring that people have a way to return voluntarily, in safety, and in dignity.
 
The second thing is that we need to ensure that internally, given the fact that none of these solutions will come quickly, there has to be a way to improve the situation temporarily here and ensure that all refugees will have a level of protection and rights. This will also make the situation more sustainable for our own system, so people in Malaysia don’t feel insecure about people working in a grey area or an undocumented way or not knowing the national language.
 
All of these things can be resolved through proper regulations and proper attention, setting clear sectors where people can work, having a clear legal pathway for temporary work for refugees, and having programs to educate refugees in national norms, culture, and the national language. 
 
In addition, the documentation issue is absolutely critical. Refugees are not undocumented migrants. Refugees are people who need protection and there should be a category that recognizes them as such. Even if Malaysia isn’t going to be ready to sign the convention, we can create domestic law or amend existing law to ensure that there is that legal documentation and recognition of refugees.
 
The reality is that allowing for more rights for refugees will also benefit the country, at the state level in terms of being able to generate more revenue for the country, as well as at the community level by generating jobs for locals. If we need to start programs to educate refugees on the national culture, only Malaysians can provide that service. It will have to be Malaysians who will be doing the teaching of language and running these programs.
 
I do see there's a will on both sides to have those conversations. It will take more time, and I hope that there will be more support and more spaces opened up for those conversations to continue and for that dialogue to take place.

Additional links:
For more from the Asia Peace Initiatives Department, visit the program page.

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