A vendor checks the temperature of a customer as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 before entering a shop selling traditional clothes ahead of the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP)
Malaysian authorities’ continued crackdown on migrant workers and asylum seekers has raised fears about widespread human rights abuses in the Muslim-majority nation.
Nearly 1,400 undocumented migrants have been rounded up over the past two weeks, mainly in an outlying area of Kuala Lumpur, in what local authorities say is part of a concentrated campaign to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.
The area, dominated by a large wholesale market, is home to thousands of migrant workers from Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers who fled their homes in Rakhine state in Myanmar in fear of their lives during a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese army in 2017.
As of May 12, local authorities had screened 7,551 migrants at the Selayang Wholesale Market, according to the Immigration Department.
“As many as 1,368 undocumented migrants have been detained and brought for documentation purposes to Kuala Lumpur’s immigration office,” the department said in a statement the same day.
In a single raid on May 11, 98 children and 261 women were detained by local authorities because they lacked valid visas and other documents.
On May 14, scores of other undocumented migrants were seized in Gombak district of Selangor state, including women and children who were taken away in the back of Immigration Department trucks.
“Some of the women hauled in those trucks looked distraught and were even crying as they were ferried out of the area,” a local newspaper reported.
Malaysia, which has two million documented migrant workers and perhaps an equal number of undocumented ones, does not recognize the rights of asylum seekers such as the stateless Rohingya to refugee status.
The raids this week followed similar raids last week during which hundreds of other undocumented migrants, including asylum seekers, were taken to squalid and overcrowded detention centers.
Malaysian authorities have defended their continued crackdown on undocumented migrants by saying the roundups are necessary to stop migrants from traveling during a nationwide lockdown and potentially spreading the coronavirus unchecked.
However, the United Nations has said such heavy-handed treatment of migrants could be counterproductive, in addition to being a violation of their human rights.
“The fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable population groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment, with negative consequences for their own health and creating further risks to the spreading of Covid-19 to others,” the UN said in a statement.
Malaysia has so far had just under 7,000 documented cases of Covid-19 with a total of 112 deaths attributed to the disease. In neighboring Singapore, thousands of migrant workers in overcrowded dormitories have been founded to be carriers of the coronavirus.