Historically, innocent minorities have always been the victims of scapegoating during virus outbreaks. In the 1980’s Haitians were blamed and ridiculed for the spread of the AIDS epidemic in America, subject to intense anti-Haitian sentiment and being labelled as diseases. Similarly, discrimination and alienation towards those of Chinese and South East Asian descent was prevalent in the SARS outbreak in North America, with blatant acts of hatredostracizing and forcing Asian communities out of their homes. This abhorrent reality of inhumanity is underpinned where state practice illustrates the furthering of their nationalist agendas at the expense of protecting innocent lives. Especially in the current climate of a global pandemic, the exclusion of protection for minority communities is accepted and encouraged by majorities living in the country. Such a reality is what India has subjected Indian Muslims to, and what Malaysia has inflicted upon the Rohingya trying to enter its borders.

On March 16th 2020, the prime minister addressed Malaysia’s Movement Control Orders (MCO). Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin stated, “I pray that all of us will continue to ensure the safety and the wellbeing of our people.” It is imperative we ask who are ‘our people?’ as Malaysia’s recent state practice has underlined that the Rohingya are consciously excluded from this title. Since April, it has been reported that there have been a total of 6 boats of hundreds of Rohingya attempting to enter Malaysia. Emaciated and lifeless, many arrive in Malaysian waters having survived the arduous journey fleeing from the camps in Bangladesh. However, the Malaysian government has so far ruthlessly rejected two boats that entered into its borders, as well as the Malaysian military having intercepted a third boat of 200 Rohingya refugees from entering its waters, abandoning it at sea.

A few questions must be asked of how Malaysia justifies this clear and violent contravention of its human rights obligations?

The interception by the Malaysian navy is defended and supported by the United Malays National Organisation deputy president, on the basis of the fear that the Rohingya will “bring Covid-19 into the country”. It is obvious that protection of citizens is a priority for all states during this time, but this does not justify a blanket ban of turning away boats, with those on board already facing grave risks to their lives. In turn, Malaysia is clearly violating international law requirements as well as disregarding its duty to provide access to asylum. Additionally, the Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin stated that the “Rohingya refugees...are illegal migrants..they have no rights or basis to state demands from the Malaysian government”. Despite not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, Malaysia is still bound by the customary law principle of non-refoulement, which applies to all migrants irrespective of their status. The Rohingya are either fleeing persecution from Myanmar, or escaping the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, which are relying solely on humanitarian aid to function and do not have the capacity to shelter more refugees.

Those who have arrived recently to the shores of Bangladesh have been taken to the Bhasan Char development. More than 300 Rohingya have now been quarantined in Bhasan Char by the Bangladesh Government despite UNHCR claiming that they had the capacity to quarantine and house all Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar Camps. Restless Beings and virtually every other organisation including the previous UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, Yanghee Lee have advised countless times that relocation to Bhasan Char is not feasible and far from ideal. By Malaysia intentionally forcing the Rohingya back to sea, it is forcing them to relocate to the uninhabitable island of Bahsan Char; that is, if they survive the perilous journey there. Conclusively, the Rohingya are at the risk of being deported to the ‘detention island’ of Bhasan Cha or subjected to ill treatment at the hands of traffickers and smugglers, and deprived of basic services to live.

A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters on April 5, 2020 Photo: Reuters

The government’s effort to fight Covid-19 can still continue, alongside it upholding its international obligation and accepting the Rohingya onto its territory. However, it seems that there is increasing apprehension of a political will to do so, due to the growing anti-Rohingya sentiment amongst Malaysian nationals. As the virus spreads, and more Rohingya attempt to gain asylum in Malaysia, the hate rhetoric against them has become increasingly extreme. In April, there were online petitions circulating with thousands of signatures calling for the deportation of the Rohingya from Malaysia. The fears relating to accepting more ‘virus ridden’ refugees linked with the depletion of medical resources led to a “Malaysians first” mindset. These uncertainties and nerves have quickly resulted in the scapegoating of the Rohingya , with verbal harassment and death threats prevalent through the nation. Recently the head of a Malaysian NGO aired on a national news channel, attacking the Rohingya refugee community as ‘dirty and ill-mannered people’.

A similar reality exists for the Muslims in India, where the already inherent Islamophobia is being weaponized under the guise of fighting the virus, rendering the idea of a secularist nation a delusion. In a post CAA and NRC India, anti-muslim violence comes with no surprise. It is even less surprising that this scapegoating was given life to by Modi’s government, pointing the finger at the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi as the source of the virus in March. The government’s ill intentioned religious profiling of those attending the gathering, with news that over 1,000 Muslim attendees had been quarantined, sparked a new found hatred towards Muslims. Interestingly, the numerous other mass gatherings that took place synonymously with the Jamaat, including festivals attended by thousands, were neither condemned nor treated as Covid hot spots. Moreover, to amplify Islamaphobic sentiment, BJP party colleagues supported the attack. The BJP leader Kapil Mishra, tweeted that attendees should be treated like “terrorists”, and other BJP members joined by calling for a boycott of Muslim vendors, “who are infecting vegetables with saliva”.

An Islamophobic cartoon spread in Indian newspapers and magazines. Photo: 5Pillars

This laid the flimsy foundation of animosity against Muslims in the Covid climate that was enough for Hindutva supporters and mainstream media to derail into violent scapegoating. In the last month, the spread of propaganda and fake videos through India’s media channels has spiked physical attacks: the forcible closure of Muslim owned businesses, the abuse of Muslim health care workers, the denial of aid to Muslim impoverished families and the denial of health services to Muslims are just numerous examples of the countless hate crimes demonising this community.

Undoubtedly, the international community has expressly condemned India’s rising islamophobia and the consequent complicity of the Modi government during this time. This includes statements from Human Rights Watch and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission questioning the Prime Minister’s deliberate lack of action. Ironically, Modi had not publicly spoken out since the attacks began in late March, but only hours after these statements were made on April 21st, he tweeted his thoughts on responding to the virus with ‘unity and brotherhood’, carefully not mentioning the communalism and severance of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood that he himself has propagated. A clear act of tokenism, Modi has since released a tweet wishing Ramadan Mubarak, including in his statement that he hopes to “achieve a decisive victory in the ongoing battle against COVID-19”. Two newborn babies have since died in Jharkhand and Rajasthan after hospitals refused to treat their Muslim mothers. On May 9th, police in Ahmedabad raided Muslim owned homes and attacked pregnant women, children and the elderly.While the world is in a battle against Covid-19, India is in a battle against its Muslims.

It becomes apparent that Covid-19 has laid the platform for both Malaysia and India to further their nationalist agendas and slowly exile these innocent minorities under the pretence of state security and border control. As the world grows in support through #StayHome and safety measures increase for global citizens, it is the lives of the Rohingya refugees and the Indian Muslims that remain unprotected, neglected and searching for hope.

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