In the past month, Rohingya Muslims have continued to face human rights abuses by by military forces in Myanmar and have been denied asylum in Malaysia. Despite the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, these actions have been brought to light and expose the actions of both governments.
In Malaysia, the threat posed by the pandemic helped central authorities to justify denying entry to Rohingya refugees arriving on boats on April 16. After preventing a boat with approximately 200 Rohingya refugees from entering Malaysian waters, the military’s rationale for such action was based on the fear that seaborne refugees would bring the coronavirus into the country. Similar to strategies taken by other countries, especially Europe and the U.S., of closing their borders to migrants and asylum seekers, Myanmar decided to take preventative measures to restrict foreign entry. Human Rights Watch, however, reports on the disproportionate and discriminatory public health measures that the country took in response to the desperate call to help Rohingya refugees.
“The government can do both”, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia Phil Robertson asserted in reference to Malaysia’s capacity to protect against the spread of the virus and ensure that those risking their lives at sea are rescued. According to international law, states have the obligation to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they could face inhumane treatment. This is the case for the Rohingya Muslims. Since August of 2017, they have been fleeing Myanmar because of a military campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights shows that there are around 600 thousand Tohingya currently subjected to persecution and violence, and multiple other human rights violations in Myanmar, mainly in Rakhine State.
The BBC reports that the pandemic has mainly served as a blanket justitication to exacerbate the mistreatment and abuses of ethnic minorities, mainly Rohinya, by security forces and militants in western Myanmar. Even though government authorities claim to have released hundreds of Rohingya to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading in jails, they denied the army’s responsibility for the death of 32 Rohingya in the past month. Aside from calling for an end to the conflict, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made a written call-for-action to Myanmar to ensure humanitarian and medical aid to “thousands Rohingya unjustly imprisoned”.
Denied of their Burmese nationality due to their Muslim affiliation, many Rohingya had been jailed for breaking travel restrictions targeting non-citizens. Similar and worse actions towards this ethnic minority have led the Myanmar government and military to face accusations of genocide before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Even though the crisis has posed a major dilemma on what public health response to take, Human Rights Watch believes it is possible to reconcile effective health measures with the states’ obligation to secure fundamental human rights. Both in Malaysia and Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims should be recognized as human beings deserving of a dignified treatment.