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COVID-19 Pandemic Further Alienates Muslim Minority Rohingya


Myanmar's Muslim minority Rohingya had few friends before COVID-19, and now they have even fewer. Boats full of refugees are being turned away by Malaysia over fears that they will spread the virus onto its shores. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For decades, Muslim-majority Malaysia has been a safe haven for Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Not anymore - an online hate campaign that began last month has shattered that dream.

PHIL ROBERTSON: It started around the 18 of April, and that was around the time that there was publicity coming out - the pushback of a Rohingya boat by the Malaysian navy.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says international criticism of that pushback policy didn't sit well in Malaysia.

ROBERTSON: And this appears to be part of the reaction - that they didn't want any more Rohingya, people were tired of the Rohingya. And quite quickly, it metastasized into a very serious hate speech campaign against the Rohingya.

SULLIVAN: Sharifah Shakirah, the founder of the Rohingya Women Development Network in Malaysia, was shocked at how fast things turned.

SHARIFAH SHAKIRAH: Even people who are friends of my people who are in a higher position and very highly educated are actually misleaded by this campaign, which breaks my heart really, really into pieces.

SULLIVAN: It's not just Rohingya targeted. It's anyone who helps them. Tengu Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi is Malaysian but an advocate for the Rohingya who's been harassed for weeks.

TENGU EMMA ZURIANA TENGKU AZMI: Death threats, rape threats, all sort of threats online. But life must go on, yeah.

SULLIVAN: She's delivering food not just to Rohingya but poor Malaysians as well who've been hard hit by loss of income related to COVID-19, some still waiting for government aid.

AZMI: People are anxious. People are worried about their future, and some of the aid hasn't really reached the one who really needs the aid. So when they heard that the Rohingya boat is coming, they thought that they might need to share their resources with these new refugees.

SULLIVAN: Some politicians, eager to capitalize on those fears, have joined the online hate campaign. And last Friday, Malaysian police rounded up hundreds of what it called undocumented migrants, including Rohingya, in what police said was an effort to contain the spread of the virus. With Malaysia no longer a haven, traffickers' boats full of Rohingya are now stranded at sea.

JOHN QUINLEY: There's two different boats that are at sea that we know of. These probably have a couple hundred people on each boat.

SULLIVAN: John Quinley is senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights. His group has been talking to survivors from a boat intercepted off Bangladesh in April.

QUINLEY: They were starved of food and water. They were beaten, and some of them died and had to throw fellow Rohingya overboard.

SULLIVAN: Dozens of Rohingya from one of the boats still at sea managed to pay their traffickers to sneak them ashore near the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Eighteen-year-old Deeni Islam (ph) was one of them.

DEENI ISLAM: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: He says he paid roughly $600 for the trip to Malaysia and that his mother paid the traffickers roughly $600 more to get him off the boat. He then snuck back into the camps. Others were caught by Bangladesh authorities and sent to a remote flood and cyclone-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. He says he hopes the 290 Rohingya on the boat he fled find refuge somewhere soon.

ISLAM: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "When I got off, they had enough rice and water for about 10 days," he says. That was almost a week ago. "Someone," he says, "has to save them."

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.