Disclaimer: This article contains descriptions of violent language directed towards refugees and women which some readers may find distressing.
Abdul Wahid, 40, came to Malaysia seven years ago in a rickety fishing boat cramped with 135 others—it’s a number he still remembers to this day. He, his wife and baby never planned to go to Malaysia. But they were forced to flee from the Myanmar Army who burned down their village in Rakhine State.
“It was chaos, people were shot by the Myanmar soldiers and our homes burned down,” Abdul Wahid says of the attacks that befell his village. “We ran to the shore and got into a big fishing boat that belonged to one of the villagers and escaped. We didn’t know where to go, except that we had to flee.”
Desperation and a lack of options led to a string of events that resulted in Abdul Wahid and his family being held for ransom by traffickers and taken to Malaysia. In the seven years since, he has worked in a variety of jobs illegally—from pushing vegetable carts in a wholesale market, to collecting recyclables and working in construction. His most recent job was welding air-conditioners for meagre wages of between US$8 and US$12 per day.
Malaysia is not a signatory of the United Nations Refugees Convention and does not recognise refugee status nor allow refugees to work legally. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of the end of April 2020, some 177,800 refugees and asylum seekers were registered with the UN in Malaysia, the vast majority of whom—101,280—are Rohingya from Myanmar.
“It was chaos, people were shot by the Myanmar soldiers and our homes burned down…We didn’t know where to go, except that we had to flee.”
Abdul Wahid lost his job in March when the government’s Movement Control Order (MCO) was put in force in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, he has relied on charitable food donations from local NGOs in the area of Selayang, Kuala Lumpur. “I have no income and I haven’t been able to pay rent nor feed my family for the last three months. I worry that my landlord will kick us out,” he says.
As the pandemic raged on, things got even more difficult for refugees in Malaysia like Abdul Wahid.
Anti-Rohingya hate speech, often stemming from fabricated content, began to emerge on social media and messaging apps, which soon erupted into a seemingly organised online campaign against refugees. It has turned some netizens not only against asylum seekers like Abdul Wahid and his family, but also against migrants, especially the undocumented, who have long been a part of Malaysian society.
What Triggered the Hate Speech?
On 16 April 2020, a boat of about 200 Rohingya refugees tried to dock in Langkawi, a holiday island off Malaysia’s coast. The boat was spotted by a Malaysian Air Force jet and promptly turned away by two escorting Navy vessels after giving food to those on board.
In an earlier incident, at least 60 Rohingya refugees died after their vessel, cramped with more than 400 people, was adrift in the Bay of Bengal for two months. The bodies of those who died on the boat were thrown overboard, according to survivors. The passengers had been refused entry into Thailand and Malaysia.
Human rights groups have decried the policy of abandoning desperate people at sea as against the norms of maritime laws and basic human rights.
On 12 June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on both Malaysia and Thailand to allow Rohingya refugees stranded at sea to come ashore and offer them access to humanitarian assistance and asylum. Hundreds of Rohingyas aboard boats that left from Bangladesh in February “have been at sea for four months without access to adequate food and water,” HRW said in a statement.
While governments have said the measures keeping refugees out were intended to keep COVID-19 out of their countries, Amnesty International said in a statement that the global pandemic did not justify state actions.
“The battle against COVID-19 is no excuse for regional governments to let their seas become graveyards for desperate Rohingya people,” Amnesty said.
But on social media, there is a growing anti-Rohingya sentiment among Malaysian “netizens”. Some commented that the arrival of refugees was a burden at what was already a challenging time for the country and its struggling economy. Others feared that the refugees were carrying the Coronavirus. As such, many internet users applauded the move to turn them away.
Outside Malaysia, the tragedy involving Rohingyas stuck at sea had become global news. This inadvertently put a spotlight on the newly formed Malaysian government led by the Perikatan Nasional coalition, an alliance cobbled together from former nemeses and political parties that were voted out in a landmark general election two years ago.
Just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on 11 March, a week-long power tussle among three factions saw the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, led by Mahathir Mohamad, after only 22 months in office. The unsuspecting victor was Mahathir’s own deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, who was able to form a new government by aligning his new minority party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU) with the older and larger Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party of former Prime Minister Najib Razak who is currently on trial for corruption.
Malaysians, divided over the new government, continued to heckle and play up the so-called “illegitimacy” of the coalition as a “backdoor government” even as the country was facing the brunt of the pandemic.
In the days following the barrage of local and international criticisms from rights groups and citizen petitioners against Malaysia’s push-out policy on the Rohingyas, a backlash was brewing at home.
“The battle against COVID-19 is no excuse for regional governments to let their seas become graveyards for desperate Rohingya people.”
Old videos of Rohingya activist Zafar Ahmad, speaking in a mix of English and Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia, started making the rounds on social media. But the videos that were recirculated contained subtitles or captions that did not accurately reflect what Zafar was saying. The captions claimed that he was demanding equal rights and full citizenship in Malaysia, an accusation that Zafar has denied. The fabricated captions have been debunked by several media websites.
“I am very sad because there are many false accusations made against me on social media. I was accused of saying that Malays are stupid. I was accused of demanding equal rights. I was accused of demanding citizenship…All these are false accusations,” he said in a video clip picked up by a local news portal.
Before the week was over, racist and xenophobic vitriols against the Rohingya community had blown up. Some of the remarks posted on Facebook in English and Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia by seemingly personal accounts were as follows:
“I am a Malaysian and I can be racist to those stinky scumbags who don’t respect our deeds and laws. So go f**k your Rohingya asses into the seas, most of us don’t care and don’t want Rohingya refugees.”
“If they are like that, we should just shoot them one by one…”
Zafar and his family now live in fear. He has received death threats and his Facebook page has been bombarded and spammed with racist epithets, forcing him to close his account and change his mobile phone number. He has since refused to speak to the media for fear of reprisals.
Blaming the Foreigner
“Fearing ‘outsiders’ is one of humans’ oldest and built-in psychological tendencies. When we fear outsiders, we dehumanise them,” clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan tells New Naratif. “In Malaysia, immigrants, especially economic migrants and refugees, have always been associated with being dangerous and dirty. [With the] Movement Control Order and pandemic that is happening now, it exaggerates the threat that is already associated with migrants [and refugees].”
Kumaresan, who is currently pursuing a PhD on marginalised groups in Malaysia, explains that this is one possible explanation for the recent increase in xenophobic sentiment amongst Malaysians expressed online. She said she has been surprised by the speed and intensity in which anti-Rohingya hate speech in particular became mainstream.
The phenomenon has been followed closely by Harris Zainul, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia whose primary research is on the consequences of social media misinformation and disinformation on democracy and societal relations.
“Based on my observation of the hate speech on the Rohingyas, there are undoubtedly normal social media users responsible for spreading and perpetuating the anti-Rohingya rhetoric. But having said that, there is definitive evidence of manipulated content being introduced into the information environment to further inflame hatred,” Harris tells New Naratif.
“When we fear outsiders, we dehumanise them…In Malaysia, immigrants, especially economic migrants and refugees, have always been associated with being dangerous and dirty.”
He says he has observed a spate of newly created accounts such as “Malaysians Against Illegal Immigrants”, and accounts that seem to have auto-generated usernames that “create and share nothing but anti-Rohingya content.” He adds, “These are often tell-tale signs of these being bots or ‘sock-puppet’ accounts.”
Sock-puppet accounts are fictitious online identities created for the purpose of deception to generate a false majority opinion. Another example of a sock-puppet account is the usage of an actual person’s identity, with their name and photograph, but attributing fictitious posts to that identity.
Harris observes that there appears to be a pattern of content being manipulated towards a certain end. News outlets Cilisos.my and Sebenarnya.my presented a long list of anti-Rohingya fabricated content that went viral, and debunked each one of them with facts. In one piece of fake news content that was shared, a video of a group of people fighting with uniformed officers was attributed to Rohingya violence in Malaysia. It later came to light that the video was actually of a protest in Indonesia shot in Pekanbaru. By then, the video had already been widely shared on WhatsApp accompanied by the false information.
“The volume of disinformation is immense and it is meant to confuse the truth. With the truth being obfuscated, the disinformation creates a negative picture of the Rohingya community and also of the migrant workers without proper documentation in Malaysia,” Harris says. “With this negative picture, public opinion can then be swayed potentially leading to the demonisation and dehumanisation of these groups.”
An Orchestrated Campaign?
Tengku Emma Zuriana, a Malaysian advocate for refugee rights, was among those who bore the brunt of the anti-Rohingya and anti-immigrant hate speech online. She is also the Malaysian ambassador for the European Rohingya Council and a vocal advocate for Rohingya welfare.
“I don’t believe the sudden anti-Rohingya hate speech evolved organically. It was simply too fast, the barrage of vicious comments and slander on the Rohingya community and personal attacks on me. Some of these are made by politically-linked social media pages,” she tells New Naratif.
According to Tengku Emma, one of the social media accounts was Bersatu.tv, which claims to be the official media site for the BERSATU party of the Perikatan National coalition. Bersatu.tv has not responded to New Naratif’s requests for comment.
Due to the barrage of negative comments, Tengku Emma was forced to close her comments section on Facebook, which then prevented Rohingyas who were in dire need of aid from posting requests for help. One of the Facebook posts that attacked her had been shared 18,000 times before it was removed. Her personal data such as her home address, mobile number and car number plate were shared online, while strangers threatened to beat, rape and kill her and her family after the MCO in Malaysia ends. Out of fear for her family’s safety, she sent her young son to live with a relative in an undisclosed location.
Tengku Emma made three police reports and at least 20 complaints to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, a government regulator of the communications and multimedia industry. She demanded that the offending posts and her personal details be taken down from several Facebook pages, whose administrators eventually complied.
“People became so misinformed by all the distorted messages. And our government did not do anything to de-escalate the tensions, nor did they attempt to correct the fake news. In fact, they allowed it to escalate,” she adds.
Persecution of Refugees and Migrants
On 30 April, after the conflagration of xenophobic hate speech was permitted to fester for a couple of weeks, Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin, from the BERSATU party, said that the government does not recognise the refugee status of any group, including Rohingyas—even if they carry a card from the UN Refugee Agency. He said that such groups are classified as “illegal” immigrants or foreigners without proper documents and that they “do not have the status, rights and basis to demand anything from the government.”
Failure to distinguish between refugees and migrant workers without proper documentation is problematic. Adrian Pereira, director of North South Initiative, a human rights NGO, says that lumping together refugees and undocumented migrants as “illegal immigrants” can mislead citizens to have a negative perception of non-citizens, and hides the complexities of how a migrant who is documented can become undocumented.
“By lumping together refugees and undocumented migrants as illegal immigrants, the government criminalises the innocent and gives impunity to the actual criminals including those who are responsible for the mass accumulation of undocumented migrants.”
While refugees flee from persecution in their homeland, migrants travel to the country to work, either of their own accord or through government initiatives. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that there were 2 million to 4 million undocumented migrants in the country as of the end of 2018.
Many of them were brought in by bogus employment agents for an exorbitant fee and left stranded without actual legal jobs. Yet, others who were hired legally were left without proper documents when their employers failed to renew their visas or were fired when employers could no longer afford to keep them.
“By lumping together refugees and undocumented migrants as illegal immigrants, the government criminalises the innocent and gives impunity to the actual criminals including those who are responsible for the mass accumulation of undocumented migrants,” Pereira tells New Naratif.
On Labour Day, mass arrests of undocumented migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, took place in several areas within the capital. While the move was criticised by rights groups, many Malaysians threw their support behind it. The government justified its decision as a necessary move to prevent the spread of COVID-19 cases. The measure earned the government brownie points from some citizens for its tough handling of the pandemic.
“Just imagine where will [undocumented migrants] go once the Enhanced MCO ends?” Pereira says.
But rights organisations warn that the mass arrests and detention of migrants could escalate the spread of the coronavirus in cramped quarters. There were also warnings about how this move would instill fear in migrants and refugees and drive them underground, thus creating risks of further infections. Indeed, since the mass arrests in recent months where thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees were handcuffed and cramped into lorries transporting them to detention centres, there have been three active clusters discovered in three immigration detention centres.
“I hear that the government is arresting refugees. It makes me very scared because I have a wife and a child. But we are just borrowing to stay in this country, this is not our country, so I can’t say anything. We just hope Malaysians will understand our situation and allow us to stay here temporarily until we are resettled,” says Abdul Wahid who holds a UNHCR card.