By Thomas Daniel and Ariane Jeffrey
The onset of COVID-19 and its resulting lockdown had a particularly harsh impact on refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, and the movement of irregular migrants making their way to the country.
For context, Malaysian law does not recognise refugees or asylum seekers, and lumps them in a broad definition of “illegal immigrants”, with little legal protection. 1 As of June 2020, there are some 177,940 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.2 The actual number is certainly higher, possibly anywhere between 150,000-400,000. Most are from Myanmar, with some having been here for three or four generations. UNHCR resettlement rates to third countries have also dropped in recent years, and Malaysia has evolved from a transit state to a final destination for some refugees, in particular the Rohingya.
Difficulties faced during the pandemic
As a result of a comprehensive lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic, known locally as the Movement Control Order (MCO), many were made redundant when businesses were forced to close. Because many are undocumented, an exact breakdown of their jobs and contribution to the economy are hard to pin down. Nevertheless, a 2019 report by the (Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) estimates if refugees were allowed to work legally, they could contribute up to RM 3 billion to the GDP and RM 50 million annually in taxes by 2024.3 Most work in the informal sectors of the economy and depend on daily or weekly wages without any job protection or access to government aid. The IDEAS report also indicates that most registered refugees in Malaysia work in the agricultural, construction and cleaning sectors often considered “4D” jobs – dirty, dangerous, difficult and demeaning. Many are now highly reliant on aid from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and well-wishers to survive.4
This posed a further problem in tracking and managing the spread of the pandemic in Malaysia, particularly because refugees, asylum seekers and other irregular migrants are considered “at-risk” groups. Even before the pandemic, their living conditions were less than ideal with hygiene and overcrowding being major concerns. A large number of Rohingya refugees were thought to have been part of Malaysia’s largest cluster to date.5 They also make up a majority of the 16,000 people in a northern municipality in Kuala Lumpur that was put under an Enhanced MCO in late April.6
A history of neglect and abuse has meant that most live off the grid and have an aversion to authorities. Because of this, contact tracing for those thought to be at risk is no easy task. Despite the efforts of refugee associations and NGOs in the early days of the pandemic, many were afraid to come forward to be screened for the virus.7 This was further compounded by the government’s seeming backpedaling of its promise not to conduct immigration operations against illegal migrants during the course of the MCO.8 The large presence of security forces on the streets to help enforce the MCO further pushed these communities underground.
For those making their way to Malaysia, the government’s response thus far has centred on two approaches. For boats that are intercepted close to shore or onshore, their occupants are detained; and for those intercepted further out at sea, they are turned around and escorted out of territorial waters.9 In April 2020, there were reports of:
- A Bangladeshi Coastguard rescue of up to 396 Rohingya on a boat originally bound for Malaysia with another two dozen dead on board. This boat had been turned back from Malaysian waters three times, with reports of at least another three boats at sea.10
- Another boat load of Rohingya was detected by the Royal Malaysia Airforce, and subsequently detained and turned back by the Royal Malaysia Navy some 70 nautical miles off Langkawi. They were given food and water on a humanitarian basis, before being escorted out of Malaysian waters.11
- A further 202 Rohingya, including five children, were detained by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency after they arrived close to a luxury resort also in Langkawi.12
Trust deficit among stakeholders
The disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, as well as those making their way to the country, is not just due to the impact of the pandemic. Rather, it is the result of decades’ worthof systemic policy gaps, neglect and mismanagement that are now being laid bare. The longstanding challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers have in turn complicated the policy responses available to Malaysia.
From our observations based on research since 2015, a significant challenge to policy making is the trust deficit among multiple stakeholders – the government, international organisations, NGOs, the private sector and refugee associations. This deficit has resulted in stakeholders working in silos rather than with each other. For example, NGOs and international organisations have been reluctant to share their more comprehensive databases with government agencies given the government’s hard-line position on refugees. The government, on the other hand, is more concerned with Malaysia being ‘flooded’ by more refugees and asylum seekers, and potentially dangerous individuals who could be living off the grid, indirectly facilitated by the aid provided by these NGOs and international organisations.
This prevailing disconnect has contributed to the festering and calcifying of the many underlying issues. The consequences of which, such as a lack of cooperation and data-sharing, have hamstrung the effective management of refugees in Malaysia, more so during the pandemic. Examples include poor compliance of healthcare regulations and standard-operating-procedures, which both make refugees a serious risk and also puts them at risk in the event of another major outbreak.
While contact tracing of refugees and asylum seekers is a health security issue for Malaysia today, there have been persistent security implications of having large numbers of unregulated and unregistered migrants in Malaysia. Undocumented foreigners, whether refugees, asylum seekers or economic migrants, would be considered a significant security concern for governments even if not a threat. A national database for refugees and asylum seekers is advantageous from a national security point of view. It not only provides identities to these groups, but it also strengthens intelligence gathering, security checks, character assessments, health screenings and biometric data. Regularising refugees and asylum seekers and registering them into a national database would have possibly mitigated potential health security risks during the pandemic.
A fundamental problem with managing refugees in Malaysia is that there is no real policy in place and thus no real idea on how many, who and where they are. It would be impossible to successfully come up with effective policies to aid them, without such data. Additionally, humanitarian arguments have never received any serious buy-in from both the political decision makers and bureaucrats in government. Because of that, more tangible progress could be made through working within the limitations in dealing with policymakers, understanding their concerns and through that, developing effective policies that cater to these concerns and benefits refugees and asylum seekers.
All stakeholders should start earnest discussions aimed at improving their working relationships, as well as the trust between refugees and authorities. This is a necessary step to facilitate the conditions toward a joint effort to identify and register as many refugees in Malaysia as possible, regardless of their legal status, within a shared database. This shared database should ideally be jointly curated by the government, in unison with the UNHCR, other NGOs, international organisations and refugee associations.
Increased securitisation of refugees
Additionally, statements by policymakers since the imposition of the MCO have indicated that the government has adopted a security-centric approach towards refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Actions such as pushing refugee boats back out to sea and rounding up refugees (including those registered with the UNHCR) to be taken to detention camps have increased fear, distrust and friction between refugees, the authorities and locals.13 Journalists and other groups, which have been deemed to paint the government in a bad light because of unfavourable reporting, have come under investigation and potentially face legal action. 14 15
An overtly securitised policy will not address the human security and healthcare concerns of refugees and asylum seekers, which in turn, will impact the host community. For example, tough government policies have still failed to account for the unknown number and disbursement of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, which has impacted the ability to conduct contact tracing in these communities. The two cannot be separated in a highly infectious pandemic. Ignoring one at the expense of the other will lead to cross-infections.
Nonetheless, the government has stated that it does not have the capacity to absorb more refugees and asylum seekers, and will be implementing tighter border control, including continued turnbacks at sea. While this has resulted in Malaysia receiving negative press coverage abroad – given the expectation to uphold the principle of non-refoulement, it has received strong backing from most Malaysians. This view is further supported by our own observations of Malaysian responses on social media as well as conversations with government officials, who cite the level of public backlash against any potential “softening” of Malaysia’s stance on refugees.
Even if punitive measures were adopted, they should be enhanced by humanitarian approaches that encourage refugees already here to come forward should they need help. Though popular with Malaysians, punitive measures do not help contain or minimise the potential health risks faced and posed by refugees.
Xenophobia and negative sentiments
There has been a wave of xenophobic sentiments toward refugees and asylum seekers with the Rohingya bearing the brunt of the blowback. Such reactions have taken shape against the backdrop of a “Malaysians first” mentality, given the ripple effects of the pandemic and the MCO on locals. Although such xenophobic sentiments have spiked during the pandemic, they are not the result of the pandemic itself. Instead, they reflect deep-seated prejudices and resentment toward such communities. These sentiments are further aggravated by the mis/disinformation on social media platforms and messaging applications. Without recognition in their home country, the Rohingya are particularly vulnerable to xenophobia, hate speech and disinformation. This means that diplomatic support and international pressure in support of the Rohingya, and indeed refugees and asylum seekers in general, are unlikely to be forthcoming.
Given that Malaysia will continue hosting and remain a final destination for refugees and asylum seekers, this presents a problem for policymakers in terms of responding and managing local perceptions. It could impact the political will for politicians and policymakers to constructively address the issue, leaving refugees and asylum seekers to rely on civil society, NGOs or themselves to challenge these problematic narratives. As of July 2020, refugees and those perceived to advocate on their behalf continue to be the target of hate speech and disinformation.
Responses by the government thus far seem to be focused on placating, rather than correcting the concerns of the electorate, whether legitimate or not. Given these sentiments, politicians and policymakers could be tempted to take the path of least resistance by further securitising the response towards refugees and asylum seekers.
It is imperative for policymakers, especially political leaders, to start educating voters on the challenges facing refugees who are forced to come to Malaysia, focusing on the underlying issues that create resentment and fear towards the latter. Disinformation and hate speech in particular need to be countered and dealt with within the provisions of the law.
Moving forward: a workable refugee policy in Malaysia
In essence, the lack of a proper refugee policy in Malaysia, coupled with stakeholders often working in silos, has led to the government securitising the portrayal and management of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the pandemic. This has had a cyclical, negative impact, as it has encouraged negative public sentiment towards these groups amongst Malaysians which, in turn, has only encouraged policymakers to continue taking a tougher approach towards refugees and asylum seekers.
COVID-19 has emphasised that refugees cannot be addressed under a singular security, economic, social or humanitarian lens. The issues impacting these groups and their overall implications to Malaysia’s national interests need to be collectively and comprehensively studied. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to have a concrete policy on refugees and asylum seekers, with a specific focus on the Rohingya who are expected to remain in Malaysia for a longer period given developments, or the lack of it, in Rakhine State.
A policy on refugees in the post-MCO, post-pandemic new normal must include health and security checks, refugee status determination, registration in a government database and permission to work legally. Refugees in Malaysia have been here for decades and are here to stay. It is unlikely that any deterrence measure employed will be able to outweigh the push factors driving them here. Without minimising the impact that this could have in attracting further refugees to Malaysia, it also helps to create the conditions that would make existing refugees more prepared and attractive for resettlement to third countries, or to return home when feasible.
1 Yasmin, P N A, Daniel, T B & Fauzi, N, 2019, Granting Refugees Permission to Work in Malaysia, ISIS Malaysia National Interest Analysis No. 1, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, viewed 9 September 2020,
3 Todd, L, Amirullah, A & Shin, W A, 2020, Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work, Policy Paper No 60, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Kuala Lumpur, viewed 9 September 2020,
9 Yasmin, P N A & Daniel, T B, 2020, ‘Managing inbound Rohingya: Malaysia’s longstanding refugee situation takes on added urgency during the pandemic’, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, 21 April, viewed 9 September 2020,
This article was first published in London School of Economics, Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia on 08 October 2020.