Rohingya refugees scapegoated for COVID-19 in India and Malaysia

Islamophobia and COVID-19 in India 

In India during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a troubling strand of public debate (and fake news) around the national response to the pandemic merged with a more pernicious and long-running strand of public discourse that frames the Muslim migrant as a national security and socio-economic threat. The result was a flood of conspiracy media stories and social media posts about how Muslims in India are deliberately spreading the disease, along with violent attacks, denial of medical treatment for Muslim patients and boycotts of Muslim businesses. Rohingya refugees have become a particular target for these conspiracies, following reports that several Rohingyas attended a Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation in Delhi in mid-March—an event which reportedly led to a spike in cases in the country. 

News about the contagion implications of this event spiralled and some outlets began to report fabricated stories that Rohingya refugees were deliberately “infected” with COVID-19 and ordered to spread it across the rest of the country. Legitimising these narratives, the Indian Home Ministry told States that tracking and screening “Rohingya Muslims” for COVID-19 must be a priority. This public targeting of the Rohingya refugee community is part of a wider stigmatisation and marginalisation of Muslims in India [pdf]. It is also heavily gendered, with significant implications for immediate Rohingya protection and their longer-term well-being in the country.  

It is the male Rohingya refugee that sits at the centre of the COVID-19 threat narrative. This is partly because it was largely men who attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, but also because women refugees are often framed as uniquely “vulnerable” and in need of rescue, which is incompatible with the desire to scapegoat the Muslim refugee as threat. Conventional and social media have successfully married health risks from the virus with security risks from migration to frame a dual biosecurity threat posed by the male Rohingya body—legitimising physical and structural violence against them as a “national defence” (i.e. through physical attacks or refusals of health treatment). Conversely, Rohingya women have been virtually absent in mainstream media narratives about the impacts of COVID-19, rendering them invisible in public discourses around vulnerability, assistance and/or resilience.

Xenophobia and COVID-19 in Malaysia

These anti-Rohingya frames are not limited to India. Malaysia turned away several boats with Rohingya refugees onboard in April, claiming it was a measure to prevent spreading of COVID-19. The Malaysian authorities then coercively rounded up and detained hundreds of undocumented migrants, including Rohingya refugees, in early May, ostensibly in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

The United Nations have condemned the crackdown, highlighting that it increased health risks for migrants and others, as the fear of detention would push many underground, unable and unwilling to seek medical care or testing. Moreover, those detained face poor conditions in detention centres where infection prevention measures are difficult. This troubling use of force and undermining of human rights and refugee protection has only served to fuel growing xenophobia in the country. 

Anti-Rohingya xenophobia spiked recently in the country following the (false) accusations that the Rohingya were seeking Malaysian citizenship. Rohingya activist leaders have faced intense gender-based attacks when calling on the government to allow refuge and exhibit more humane treatment of the vulnerable refugee community.

Relief and Recovery Implications

The short-term protection implications of these discourses are significant. As a government-designated “illegal migrant” community, Rohingya refugees in India and Malaysia are not able to avail any government support schemes designed to mitigate the impacts of lost livelihoods and immobility during lockdown. As an identified biosecurity threat during a moment of nation-wide lockdown, they have experienced decreased levels of humanitarian assistance, increased government surveillance, and a heightened risk and experience of persecution. 

Over the medium-term, Rohingya recovery will be hampered significantly. Rohingya refugees in India already struggle to get access to basic health and education services as a result of their “illegal” status in the country, and the association of them with the virus may exacerbate that marginalisation further. Moreover, in Rohingya culture, the men are typically the breadwinners of the household, and women work as caregivers in the home sphere. With the COVID-19 bio-securitisation of the Rohingya man intersecting with popular perceptions of the refugee community as “illegal”, Rohingya men potentially face further exclusions from an already precarious and exploitative informal economy. This has significant implications for the wellbeing of Rohingya families in both India and Malaysia, as chronic unemployment in a context of confined impoverishment can lead to heightened stress, fractured relationships, maladaptive survival practices (such as arranged girl child marriages) and increased incidences of sexual and gender-based violence in the home space and settlements. 

These outcomes are not inevitable, but require governments to publicly curb the bio-securitisation of Rohingya refugees, reprimand organisations that enact or incite discrimination against the community, and offer gender-sensitive inclusions in national assistance programmes for vulnerable communities. Rohingya refugees must be able to access relief, testing and medical treatment during the emergency phase of the pandemic, and must be considered in any longer-term plans for livelihood, housing and development support over the medium term.

Jessica Field (Originally posted 21 May 2020 on previous blog site)

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